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Harvard workers reject university’s contract offer

Activists say pay increase not enough

Avery Bleichfeld
Harvard workers reject university’s contract offer
SEIU 32BJ Executive Vice Pres. Roxanna Rivera leads a demonstration at Harvard University. AVERY BLEICHFELD photo

Members of the union representing Harvard University’s custodians and security guards rallied outside the office of the university’s president Nov. 30 as they negotiated a new contract that they hoped would include a higher pay raise.

The rally comes amid months of struggle at the university that saw rallies and strikes from its various unions, including the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, the Harvard Graduate Students Union and 32BJ SEIU, which represents its custodians and security guards.

The contract for 32BJ’s service workers was set to expire Nov. 15 but was extended to Dec. 3 as union members continued to push for a raise. According to reporting from The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, the university offered an initial 4% increase in wages with 2.25% annual raises for a five-year contract.

At the rally Nov. 30, Itelvina Fernandes, a Harvard custodian and member of the 32BJ bargaining team, called the offer a shame and said the workers deserve a higher raise.

“Everything is going up, and then they think that we’re here — we’re just asking for our rights, because we’re the ones that’s here making sure Harvard is clean and welcome for all you guys here,” Fernandes said. “And now is the time for them to see what we go through, for them to at least come to the table and say ‘Thank you so much for working in this difficult time.’”

Harvard University officials could not be reached for comment.

Roxana Rivera, executive vice president at 32BJ, said a raise is especially important considering the pandemic, which she said set many workers back financially.

“We’re asking Harvard today, that they step up and that they ensure 1,000 essential workers have what they need for the subsequent years,” Rivera said at the rally. “They need to be put back on track and be able to lead lives with their families in the best way possible, and we know Harvard can do that.”

For Rivera, it is not just about recovery from the pandemic, but also about the dignity of the work that custodians and security guards do.

“Custodians were being asked to do work that, at some point, was very scary, because at the times where we didn’t even know with COVID, if you could contract it on actual desks or tabletops,” Rivera said in an interview following the rally. “There were a lot of unknowns, but workers were still asked to go in and disinfect, or to go into areas where we know students were in quarantine. But they did all that because they wanted to see through their obligation here, as a worker here on campus, and also be able to have what they needed to take care of their families.”

As part of the rally, members of the Cambridge City Council, including Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice-Mayor Alanna Mallon, delivered a unanimous resolution to the Office of the President, calling on the university to increase the wages of the workers to help them bounce back from the pandemic.

“We’ll be recovering from this pandemic for a really long time, and there’s so much unknown, but we do know that all of you, our workers, stand up, they come to work every day, they keep things going and you really deserve everything that you get,” Siddiqui said.

Marc McGovern, a member of the Cambridge City Council, said the university’s service workers are key to keeping the institution operating.

“I hope you hear us, because these folks are keeping you running, these folks are keeping you in existence, these folks deserve what they are asking for, and, in fact, more than what they are asking for,” McGovern said toward the brick face of the building that houses the president’s office.

“So, do the right thing, Harvard. Step up to the plate, stop making this so difficult and stand by your workforce.”

For Rivera, the support of elected officials in Cambridge — as well as state Rep. Mike Connolly, who appeared at the rally, and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who appeared at another rally early last month — is important to remind the university leadership that the union members are not alone.

“Having [elected officials] say to Harvard, ‘This is the right thing to do and it’s within their means to do it, is super important,” Rivera said after the rally. “These workers, again, they shouldn’t be invisible. They, unfortunately, were called essential but treated as though they were invisible.”

Members of 32BJ also found support from members of Harvard’s other unions.

Brandon Mancilla, president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU), said at the rally that the university should be prepared to treat all its workers equally, whether they are students at the university or not.

The HGSU bargaining committee reached an agreement regarding their contract with the university Nov. 15. About 70% of the union’s membership voted to ratify the contract Nov. 27. Under the contract, graduate student workers in the union will receive a 5% pay increase.

“When they negotiate with us, the student workers, they tend to say ‘Oh, you’re not like the other unions, you guys are students, so therefore you don’t deserve the benefits that they get,’” Mancilla said. “Now I think they’re going to start changing it. Now they’re going to start saying, ‘Oh, you guys are just workers; you’re not students. You don’t deserve what the students got.’ We reject that logic 100%.”

He added that while the fight is not over, he sees hope on the other side.

“We have fought over these past few months to win what is ours, and the fight hasn’t finished, but you can see the finish, and the finish is the justice, the equality, better benefits, better pay and a better future for us and our families,” Mancilla said in Spanish.

On Dec. 3, the day the contract was set to expire, the security guards at Harvard extended their contract through Dec. 8.

Later that same night, Harvard custodians reached an agreement for a new contract with the university that would give a 5.75% wage increase over the first year of the four-year agreement. That increase is split into two raises: a 2.75% wage increase effective Nov. 16 of this year and a 3% wage increase effective in July 2022. Custodians would see a 15.25% wage increase over the course of the four years of the contract.

32BJ, Havard University, SEUI