Strong contracts come from the bottom up

January 7, 2019

Ryan Roche, a local representative in the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, describes how co-workers in the union reform caucus organized a “Vote No” campaign during a recent contract battle — and built solidarity for the next fight in the process. This story is a contribution to the Socialists at Work series at SW that began with articles from the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) Socialist at Work Toolkit, assembled by the ISO’s Labor Working Group. We asked readers to send their own stories and ideas about being a socialist at work. Please consider contributing about your experiences and the lessons you’ve drawn from them in an e-mail submission to SW — or just tell us what you liked, or didn’t, about this series.

I’VE BEEN in my union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW-AFSCME Local 3650), for just over five years. In November and December, I worked with fellow members of the Reform HUCTW caucus to campaign against the agreement that the union reached with Harvard University.

Most union activism is done by a small number of labor radicals who are outside the HUCTW bureaucracy, and because of the lack of consistent political engagement with membership, the union is run from the top down.

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It was an uphill battle, and ultimately our votes against the proposed contract were a small share of the ballots cast, but I think it was an important organizing experience that got more rank-and-file workers interested in how our union works and how it could better stand up for the interests of its workers.

HUCTW IS the largest union at Harvard University, representing about 5,000 clerical, technical and research workers across the university, its graduate schools and some Harvard offices out of state.

It’s a very bureaucratic, top-down union. We don’t have any membership meetings where members can submit and vote on resolutions or argue for different perspectives, and the union tries not to involve us in struggles around our contract if it’s at all possible. Top-down unions like this lead to passive or apathetic membership, and passive membership is the best way to guarantee a weak contract for workers.

In the first contract fight I saw after being hired here, we worked under an expired contract for 18 months and then saw our health care premiums and co-pays increase for the first time in 15 years. The union didn’t launch a petition drive or call for a single rally to get us engaged in the fight against those increases, which have caused significant hardship for many of our members.

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The contract negotiations this year followed a similar pattern. After working under an expired contract for two months, the tentative agreement endorsed by the union was a bad deal. Instead of retro pay for those two months, the union agreed to let Harvard pay us a lump-sum “bonus.”

They combined that bonus with the actual pay increase (2.3 percent) to tell our membership that the average member would be getting a raise of 3.8 percent in year one. That sounds pretty good if you don’t know that the inflation rate in Boston is about 3.3 percent. In years two and three, our raises will only be 3.5 percent for the average worker (again, a combination of a 2 percent raise and a lump sum of $850 to $900) — 0.2 percent above the inflation rate.

And significant concessions were made in our contract language that will affect workers filing grievances, explicitly encourage managers to issue verbal warnings, and open the door for discrimination against workers with disabilities or chronic illnesses by expanding the circumstances where managers can demand doctor’s notes to excuse the use of sick time.

TWO YEARS ago, when UNITE HERE Local 26 dining hall workers went on strike against Harvard for a month, I became aware of and joined my union’s reform caucus, because HUCTW wasn’t doing anything to mobilize our membership to join their picket lines or encourage us not to cross them.

Reform HUCTW’s membership includes some committed socialists and anarchists, progressive labor activists, and some people who are just unhappy with the lack of democracy and member engagement in our union. As we learned more details about the tentative agreement and began sharing our thoughts and concerns on the caucus listserv, a few of us decided to start a “Vote No” campaign.

Since I’ve never done this type of organizing before, the first thing I did was look to Socialist Worker. I had read several articles about the “Vote No” campaign that Teamsters for a Democratic Union were waging against the bad contract reached with UPS. I went back to re-read how those workers were able to discuss the contract with co-workers, be visible and get workers more engaged.

One thing that was mentioned was the importance of being visible with “Vote No” posters and flyers, so I worked with the other members of Reform HUCTW to make a draft flyer that we could hang up in our workplaces and pass out to co-workers.

And shortly after our campaign began, SW published Larry Bradshaw’s article “Being a Socialist at Work.” The “tricks and traps” at the bottom were very helpful as we went into the last week before the election and needed to make the most impact with the little time we had left.

Particularly, Larry’s advice about the need to map our workplaces and have more one-on-one conversations with co-workers was a huge help.

While it was too late in the game to build a full map of all 5,000 union members at the university, it did make me more effective at deciding who to talk to. And I was able to take my notes about those conversations to begin building a map of my office in preparation for the next struggle.

WE HAD about a month between the announcement of the tentative agreement and the day our union would vote on it: December 4.

Members at the Harvard schools near the main campus did a lot of in-person campaigning and used maps of those areas, created during previous struggles, to reach out to rank-and-file union members and encourage them to vote no and send our union back to the negotiating table.

We hung our flyers up in workplaces and handed them out while campaigning, and we talked to our own networks of rank-and-file members about the contract and why we thought that if we actually fought, we could win something better.

We were at a serious disadvantage, though, when union officials started doing aggressive outreach in the days before the election to build support for the proposed contract. Because we don’t have access to lists of union members and their e-mail addresses, we were limited in the number of people we could reach.

The most effective organizing tool in that last week was an e-mail that one of my co-workers sent to the union leadership and forwarded to our caucus. They spoke about their disappointment that the union was willing to accept restrictions on workers’ use of sick time, after years spent trying and failing to get HUCTW to take the university’s discrimination against people with disabilities seriously.

Through struggles to get Family and Medical Leave and repeated harassment by managers over unnecessary doctor’s notes to “prove” their disability, they were angry that HUCTW decided to open the door to even greater discrimination against disabled workers at Harvard.

This worker ended their message by saying that management had actually successfully pushed them out of their job, which was scheduled to end the day before winter recess. Their last request was for HUCTW to acknowledge its failures to fight for all members and do better in the future.

Most of the people I sent this letter to told me that they had been unsure about how they would vote, but the letter convinced them to vote “no.” I even heard chatter about the letter and our campaign while in the line to cast our ballots.

On December 5, we got the final vote counts. Around 2,500 members, about 50 percent of our membership, voted in the election, with 147 members voting against the contract. This is a very small share of the members who voted, but is at least 100 more votes than any previous “Vote No” campaign has been able to get.

One of the leaders of the Reform HUCTW caucus also ran for a seat on the executive board for the area where he works, and was defeated in the face of heavy campaigning for an incumbent by union officials. However, he did earn significantly more votes than he has in past elections, including a majority at one school where he didn’t do very much in-person campaigning.

In our conversations with fellow union members, we were also able to sign up about 30 new people for our caucus’ e-mail listserv.

While the campaign ultimately ended in defeat, I think it was a worthy attempt and worth the effort.

In campaigning in my office, I met many more members of our union and got into a lot of good conversations about politics and our experiences as workers at Harvard: one of the richest institutions in the world and located in one of the most expensive cities in North America, but where the average pay of our union members is only $58,000 a year.

I think that with some continued effort, we can keep increasing the size and strength of our caucus and push our union toward more engagement with membership, and politics of solidarity with other labor struggles happening on campus (the current contract negotiations between Harvard and the Grad Students Union) and off (the historic UNITE HERE Local 26 hotel strikes).

Further Reading

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