Harvard Takes Advantage of Weak Economy to Lay Off Employees and Restructure
I am employed by Harvard University in their Fine Arts Library as an image cataloguing assistant and on Tuesday June 23, 2009 I and two other people in the image cataloguing unit were laid off. Seven employees were cut from my library, 30 positions from Harvard College Library overall. This was our “contribution” to the 275 job eliminations, plus reductions in hours to approximately forty other positions that Harvard announced in an early morning email to all university staff on June 23.
Harvard has targeted the libraries during the current economic environment as well as other areas of Fine Arts and Sciences and the law and medical schools. There will be a considerable reorganization and reduction of employees with no apparent thought for either the human cost to those people and their families or the cost to the faculty and student community in lost and diminished services. Harvard is treating the current economic crunch as an opportunity to be ruthless. It has chosen to implement drastic changes at warp speed, apparently assuming that the economic climate immunizes it from public censure. I feel at a loss to know what to do either for myself or to help anyone else.
Harvard administration has been beating the budgetary drums since last October, leading up to the prospect of personnel reductions. Many ominous memos have been issued concerning losses to the university’s still enormous endowment. Last February I was offered an early retirement package which I did not accept. I belong to a union called HUCTW (Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers), AFSCME local 3650, with approximately 4800 members. Until last May HUCTW denied that layoffs were pending. It encouraged relevant people to accept the buyout (30% of all eligible staff accepted) and has denied the implicit coercion. In late May HUCTW acknowledged that 1 to 2 percent of our membership would be laid off. Substantial numbers of exempt staff would be laid off as well. Dining hall and custodial staff (not HUCTW) had at this point already been laid off, and further layoffs of these workers are rumored for the near future.
HUCTW has declined to offer any resistance or to organize around the situation in any way. (Our contract has a no-strike clause, but obviously other things could have been done.) It has not joined efforts by the unions of dining service or custodial staff, UNITE-HERE and SEIU, to support their members. It has not opposed layoffs, merely proposed to moderate them (for example, it suggested something called “voluntary layoffs” as an alternative?!) Here is an example of voluntary layoffs: In mid-June, 32 faculty secretaries employed at Harvard Law School were called to a meeting presided over by human resources, a departmental manager and an HUCTW official. They were told that two among them would be laid off but were offered a 24-hour “grace period” during which individuals could volunteer to be laid off, thus sparing their colleagues. This is HUCTW’s version of solidarity.
It operates on a philosophy called “jointness” which stresses a partnership relationship with management and is highly conflict averse. They have tried to minimize publicity so that less affected staff would not realize the extent of what was happening. They have tailored communications to small groups so people in one work area will not know what goes on elsewhere. Information has been largely through employee grapevine. HUCTW officials abruptly scheduled a post-impact bargaining meeting with their members in my library one day before layoffs were implemented. (I learned informally that a similar meeting was called for employees at Radcliffe the same day.) In deference to management’s wishes, they refused during that meeting to tell us who would be cut or when the cuts would be implemented.
Our contract has neither a seniority clause nor job security clause. There is, in the alternative, something called “work security” which involves 60 days notice and a kind of supplemental unemployment insurance in which the laid off worker can receive pay and benefits for a certain length of time if s/he proves to the satisfaction of a management case worker that s/he is aggressively job hunting. Ultimate there is severance, the amount based on the employee's years of service. However if you do find a job within 2 years the severance must be repaid on a prorated basis, making this in effect a partial loan. This system makes a target of older, longer-service employees, and gives the employer considerable leverage over employees it lays off while imposing relatively light financial consequences.
Harvard plans further budget reductions a year from now with probable further staff reductions. Employees thus far spared are afraid for their jobs. It matters deeply -- to those laid off, to those not laid off, to the community in which Harvard is embedded, and most of all to the living community which Harvard comprises -- that Harvard's administration and Harvard’s largest union learn accountability. Harvard must learn that maximizing it’s endowment is not its mission. And HUCTW, paralyzed by fear of damaging its relationship with management, must learn that its true principal is its membership. Both are accountable to every employee for the harm caused by their decisions, and accountable to the scholars and students who rely on the university’s weakened academic resources. They are accountable.