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Harvard guards win first union contract

By Keith Rosenthal | June 22, 2007 | Page 15

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The 265 security guards in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615 overwhelmingly approved June 6 their first-ever negotiated contract with Harvard University and Allied Barton, a private security firm contracted by Harvard, which employs the guards.

The contract is considered a major victory by the guards, who only voted to join SEIU in December 2006, and have been negotiating since then. The new contract includes starting wages of $14.50 an hour ($2 more than the current starting wage), grievance procedures, elected union stewards, and concessions on paid time-off, seniority and scheduling.

This victory is all the more significant given the history of the guards' fight with Harvard. Until 2004, the guards were all Harvard employees and members of an independent union. However, that was the year in which Harvard outsourced the guards to a private contractor, Allied Barton, where unionization was prohibited.

Now they're unionized again. But it wasn't an easy victory. "You couldn't speak of the union or rallies or anything in front of the supervisors," guard Deanna Ross said. "They were throwing their weight around."

Despite the fear campaigns and rumors, the campaign ultimately drew a lot of support. In January, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) at Harvard University started holding daily rallies, writing articles in the Harvard Crimson, and generating student awareness of the guards' struggle.

On May 3, 11 students began a hunger strike that would last nine days and end with two strikers being hospitalized. This electrified the campus. Over 31 campus organizations endorsed the campaign, the Undergraduate Council voted to support the struggle, and the Harvard Crimson came out with an editorial supporting the guards.

On May 17, about 150 guards, students and supporters rallied at Harvard, marching through the streets and blocking traffic, which led to the arrest of three community supporters.

On that same day, the guards voted to authorize a strike, which was scheduled to have begun June 7, right in the middle of Harvard's graduation ceremonies. SLAM also announced its intention to support the guards' potential strike with civil disobedience actions during graduation.

This seems to have tipped the balance. By the end of May, the union and Harvard had reached a tentative agreement.

For many guards, the victory is significant not only because of the wage concessions in the contract, but because of the newfound confidence and respect the guards have gained in the workplace.

Ross insisted that the guards' victory is just one "small stone in a big statue. It's just the beginning." She continued, "This world can change--it just takes people to do it. If you can get people to stand together, then most definitely, the world can change."

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