Thursday, July 8, 2010

Crimson: Union Negotiations Made "Challenging" By Fiscal Situation

Union Negotiations Made "Challenging" By Fiscal Situation

The University’s difficult financial situation rendered contract negotiations between the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers and University management particularly challenging in the past year, according to leaders of both parties.

HUCTW and the University entered the eighth round of negotiations with differing opinions on Harvard’s ability to increase wages and extend benefits in subsequent years, leading to a tentative two-year contract agreement on Wednesday—a divergence from the three-year contracts that have been the norm since the union’s founding in 1989.

The union and University management also disagreed on whether Harvard’s finances are improving and will continue to improve, according to HUCTW Director Bill Jaeger, who could not elaborate further on the specifics of the discrepancy in opinions. Harvard’s Director of Labor Relations Bill Murphy similarly declined to detail the points of disagreement.

“These were challenging negotiations, but the parties worked together respectfully and we consider this a successful agreement which reflects the economic times,” Murphy wrote in a statement.

Echoing Murphy’s sentiments, Jaeger said that the recent negotiations occurred within what was likely “the most difficult set of external circumstances we’ve ever had to contend with,” in reference to the roughly $11 billion that Harvard’s endowment lost in the 2008 market crash. But Jaeger added that negotiating parties were able to “work out something that we think will work in such difficult financial times.”

The tentative agreement offers a 2.58 percent average pay increase to HUCTW members over the next two years, with an a $1,000 raise for all HUCTW members this year, and a 3.5 percent salary increase for the majority of union members—significantly less than the salary increases in the 4 to 4.5 percent range outlined in the previous contract.

“The economics are not as strong as they have been in other times, but those were times of greater prosperity and economic growth,” said Jaeger of the decrease in pay raises, adding that the union is “very proud” of policy changes in the contract.

In what seems to be a reactive measure to the slew of staff cuts that swept through the University during the budget crisis last year, the new contract features offers details on the University’s layoff procedures. Specifically, an individual’s length of service will be the determining factor in job cuts when the University cannot demonstrate differences in employees' qualifications, abilities, function, or documented performance, according to a Harvard official close to negotiations who wished to remain anonymous because the contract remains tentative. 

The new agreement includes strong language that seeks to ensure that the Union and the University work together to manage layoffs. Though such a measure was already in place, Jaeger said he hopes to make sure that union-management collaboration happens "earlier and more meaningfully."

“The worst of any layoff experience for our members is almost certainly behind us,” said Jaeger, in reference to the layoffs of about 100 union members last year.

The Harvard official confirmed that “currently, there are no plans for any layoff announcements.”
The new contract expresses a commitment on behalf of the union and the University to determine when it is appropriate to hire employees for “term jobs,” positions with a designated end date, usually one to two years from the time of hiring, which can be extended by the employer. The issue has been a source of tension between union members and the University, since employees whose jobs end on the specified date after less than two years of employment do not receive unemployment benefits.

Both HUCTW and Harvard officials agree that “term jobs” are appropriate in times when a funding source or a the duration of a specific project are limited—such as recent digitizing projects, or a position associated with a grant. But some HUCTW officials argue that the University’s use of term jobs can border on abusive.
But Jaeger, who said he was pleased with the stipulation in the new contract, expressed a more tempered view of the situation of temporary workers, saying that it was “not an outrage” but “a serious concern.”
“If we disagree now we’ve got a way to investigate and resolve it together, and to go to mediation if necessary,” Jaeger said. “I don’t think it’s an overnight fix, but it’s the beginning of a new process.”

The new contract also increases the size of the union’s membership by granting union eligibility to non-exempt jobs in salary grade 56, or Harvard employees who earn between $49,800 and $82,000 a year—a salary grade higher than was previously covered in the contract. The change will lead to "important new career development opportunities for current Union members," according to an e-mail from HUCTW leadership to union members.

Additionally, there will be no cuts in union member’s benefits, such as health care, tuition assistance, and retirement.

Both HUCTW and University officials attribute their ability to reach a satisfactory agreement in difficult conditions to their particularly strong relationship.

“It’s a good thing that we have a mature partnership, and a lot of good relationships and built up respect between union and University leaders,” Jaeger said. “We needed all of that to make things work in this round of negotiations.”

—Staff Writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at

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