Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Open Letter from HUCTW office

We are re-posting this letter to reach as many people as possible.  Comments and reactions are encouraged.

Troubled Negotiations Need a Whole
Community’s Active Engagement

An Open Letter from the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers
July 2012
After nearly a year of research and preparation and three months of intensive negotiation, representatives of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) and the University have still not agreed on terms of a new contract to replace the Agreement that expired on June 30, 2012.  HUCTW and Harvard have agreed to extend the terms of the old Agreement indefinitely and to continue negotiating.  But it is now mid-July, two weeks past the end of the previous contract, and the negotiations need to enter a new phase, which will require the support and active engagement of a broader Harvard community.  
The University and HUCTW have a long and celebrated history of accomplishment, acting together constructively and creatively as partners. For 24 years, Union members, administrators, and faculty members have engaged in constructive conversations, tackled difficult issues, and developed innovative plans. But that positive, productive spirit is threatened by developments in the current negotiation. This is a critical time for Union members and friends to get involved and support our efforts to move forward with positive and innovative changes.

This Open Letter from HUCTW leaders is long, but we urge you to read it in its entirety, to learn about the issues under discussion and the sticking points in negotiations. The three policy areas in which HUCTW negotiators have encountered significant resistance from the University are the salary increase program, health care, and the bargaining unit.

HUCTW and Harvard have negotiated 23 annual increases for members of our Union since 1989. The current talks on a raise program for July 1, 2012, may be the most complicated and difficult to date.
Negotiations on wages are revealing deep differences of perspective about how thoroughly Harvard has recovered from the losses of 2008-09, and how optimistically we can return to strategies emphasizing investment and growth, including investment in the staff. HUCTW negotiators have pointed to powerful indicators showing that Harvard has regained a firm financial footing and is entering a period of ambitious growth.  In our Union’s view, after nearly three years of constraint and sacrifice, current financial conditions are strong and staff salary growth needs to be solid in the coming years. Conversely, University representatives are expressing concerns about constrained revenue growth in future years and insisting that caution is necessary, based on uncertainty about endowment returns and the possibility of reduced government funding for science research.
While many of the projects announced in recent months – EdX, the renovation of undergraduate residential houses, and new academic programming in the College and professional schools – are important and exciting, there is a stark and troubling contrast between the optimistic air of new activity that crackles across the campus today and the cries for extreme caution about staff salaries that we hear in our contract talks. In the same way our University’s leaders clearly believe it is critical to invest in our buildings and programs, the institution needs to understand the staff as critically important contributors to Harvard’s greatness, and return to significant investment in salary growth for HUCTW members.
We have come to believe that the University has regained its fiscal fitness based on the following factors: 
  • Harvard has maintained a clean balance sheet (no deficit spending) during every year of the financial crisis, from Fiscal Year 2008 through FY 2011.
  • In the aggregate, Harvard schools and departments have abundant reserves, well in excess of accepted standards for sufficient “rainy day” funds.
  • The endowment has regained much of the value it lost in 2008, enough so that endowment funds distributed to the schools for operations have increased significantly (by 4% and 5%) in the past two years.
  • Bold plans have been announced for renovating the undergraduate residential houses and for restarting construction of a new Allston campus.
Perhaps most important, every day Union members can see examples of Harvard returning to confident, expansive planning and spending.  A number of recent events demonstrate that Harvard administrators have moved away from the cautious and pessimistic outlook of recent years:
  • Earlier this year, the University committed $30 million to EdX – a collaboration with MIT to offer courses online and free to the public.
  • The number of staff jobs posted on ASPIRE (Harvard’s online job-posting system) has reached record high levels.  At this writing, there are nearly 430 new positions advertised on ASPIRE.
  • Although the officially announced salary program for non-union “exempt” staff provided for 2% raises last year, HUCTW analysis of data on average exempt salaries shows that, among those non-union staff, the average full-time salary grew by 3.1% last year.  On top of that, exempt staff received an additional 1% in bonuses for last year. The average HUCTW full-time rate increased by 3.0% in the same period, with minimal bonus activity.
HUCTW and Harvard representatives have been wrestling with philosophical differences on health care for several years now.  Copayments, retiree health, and efforts to reduce the financial burden on lower-paid employees are the most contentious issues on the table currently.
Everyone understands that the rising cost of health care is a shared problem that places strains on institutional budgets and on the family finances of staff and retirees. Too often in past years, University administrators have focused on cost-shifting strategies that reduce the employer’s costs by increasing employee copayments.  Union leaders have often felt unheard when putting forward strategies for “bending the curve” by lowering total costs for both the employer and employees, or redistributing the cost burden more fairly.
University representatives have reacted cautiously and hesitantly to the ideas HUCTW has introduced in negotiations, described in the bullets below. This is especially frustrating to Union members because the set of ideas HUCTW has advanced in these negotiations would reduce the University’s health care cost by more than a half-million dollars in 2013, with the promise of millions more in savings for future years.  Even more important, a thoughtfully balanced package would usher in a new era of creative collaboration focused on fair, affordable health care for employees and smart, progressive cost containment for the University.
These contrasting views continue to play out in the current negotiation, as the two sides struggle in several key areas:
  • Union leaders believe that Harvard’s plan to introduce new coinsurance for retirees with an “out-of-pocket” maximum of $1,000 per year is too great a cost for lower-income retirees.
  • HUCTW negotiators are proposing changes in the formula for employee contributions to monthly health care premiums – changes that would be cost-neutral for the University. We support a more progressive plan in which the premium burden on lower-income employees could be eased by enacting a small increase in premium rates for Harvard’s highest paid employees.
  • Union leaders are willing to agree to incremental increases in copayments for active employees, but we are insisting that they should be part of a balanced package that recognizes differences in income among members of our community.
  • HUCTW is also presenting important proposals for collaborative educational efforts to reduce health care costs by supporting better health consumer decisions and expanding wellness programs.
For more than two years now, Union and University leaders have engaged in intensive discussions on disagreements about what types of jobs are eligible to be included in HUCTW. (The issue was given priority status in 2010 negotiations, and serious talks have been ongoing in the Joint Committee on the Bargaining Unit.) The crux of the difficulty is this:  HUCTW leaders believe that there is significant confusion and inconsistency across the University in the application of legal standards for “exempt” status under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), particularly in Salary Grades 55 and 56.  As a result, some hundreds of jobs are questionably classified as exempt, and staff members working in those positions are potentially being denied the benefits of inclusion in HUCTW. 
HUCTW and Harvard officials have studied and discussed the problem of FLSA exemption practices and their implications on union status extensively. We have read US Department of Labor “Opinion Letters,” reviewed hundreds of job postings and position descriptions, and conferred with key stakeholders including Human Resources professionals. At this point, HUCTW leaders believe strongly that the issue has been studied sufficiently, and it is time to take action. 
We have tried to be patient and reasonable about resolving bargaining unit questions.  Union negotiators are not demanding that the entire complex issue has to be resolved right now.  We are insisting that meaningful action needs to begin soon, at least on some of the most glaring examples of inappropriate exclusion from the bargaining unit. The bargaining unit and FLSA problem should be seen as an area of deep mutual interest – in the present, confused state, the University risks non-compliance with a federal law.  At the same time, HUCTW is eager to help resolve confusing cases, and to help develop clear and consistent standards on the use of exemptions and inclusion in the Union.
As in the health care negotiations, Harvard representatives have responded nervously to Union suggestions about steps toward resolving our bargaining unit differences. The bargaining unit problems are technically complex and politically charged, but should be manageable if we take a serious, thoughtful, and collaborative approach. After more than two years of patient, diligent review, it is time to begin that work in earnest.
To be sure, there are difficult issues in this negotiation. Rising health care cost is a critical societal challenge that confounds policy-makers, employers, and families across the country.  Bargaining unit issues are always charged and complicated.  And questions about Harvard’s internal economy and the course of our recovery from the Great Recession are confusing for some at the moment.  At the same time, the University and HUCTW, working in mature and skillful partnership, should be able to collaborate productively on these issues.  So far in the 2012 negotiations, our Union’s efforts to establish a serious, constructive tone have not borne fruit.
For 24 years, HUCTW and Harvard have worked together – on divisive issues or areas of huge overlapping interest, in good and bad economic times.  Our Union has been a committed and principled partner, willing to work hard on tough policy questions and always ready with innovative new ideas about making Harvard fairer, stronger, and better. We have advocated strongly for solutions that benefit not just HUCTW members but the whole community.
That willingness and constructive spirit on the part of HUCTW has never been clearer than it was during the financial crisis of 2009-2011, when our members all across the campus did more and better with less and adjusted to painfully changed economic realities.  But now it is 2012.  If HUCTW and the University are going to thrive in partnership for our second quarter-century, Harvard administrators will need to match the Union’s determination, resourcefulness, and readiness to engage in the persistent listening, thoughtful consideration, and confident innovation that lead to good policies and a great workplace.
In the next few weeks, HUCTW leaders and members all across the University will be reaching out to colleagues in the faculty, non-union staff, students, and friends in the community to broaden the discussion about issues in our negotiation.  We hope that many in the community will share our hopes for a fair and progressive set of policies.  We will ask our friends to support our efforts to negotiate a contract that sets an impressive example of what a great University and a strong Union can do when they strive as partners for institutional greatness, deal with tough problems, and search steadfastly for balanced solutions.
Please contact HUCTW at 617-661-8289 or if you have questions or ideas, or to find out more about how you can help work toward a good outcome in the negotiations.
HUCTW Executive Board and Organizing Staff
Tasha Williams, President
Laura Ebenstein, Vice President
Pam Mullaney, Treasurer
Lynn Wang DeLacey, Secretary
Geraldine Barney, Observatory
Joslyn Evans, AAD
Frank Garcia, UFS
Andrea Kupski-Keane, FAS
Margaret Moore DeChicojay, GSD
Mike Piantigini, HMS
Siobhan Saint Surin, HSPH
Lesley Schoenfeld, HLS
Esther Simmons, HBS
Steve Sweeney, UIS
Emily Vides, FAS
Harvey Willson, HSDM
Kate Zirpolo Flynn, SEAS
Missouri Ammons
Carrie Barbash
Peter Berry
Gloria Buffonge
Alex Chisholm
Randi Ellingboe
Joie Gelband
Thomasin Guenard
Emily Hankle
Bill Jaeger
Adrienne Landau
Marie Manna
Shamim Morani
Rachael School
Ann Sjostedt
Donene Williams
Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers    617-661-8289