On Wednesday, June 6, the 265 security guards in SEUI Local 615 overwhelmingly approved their first-ever negotiated contract with Harvard University and AlliedBarton, a private security firm contracted by Harvard, which employs the guards.
The contract is considered a major victory by the guards who only recently voted to join SEUI in December of 2006, and have been negotiating since then. The new contract includes starting wages of $14.50 ($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 organized in the Harvard University Security, Parking, and Museum Guards Union. However, that was the year in which Harvard decided that in order to cut costs, it would have to outsource the guards to a private contractor, AlliedBarton, where unionization was prohibited.
Between 2004 and the end of 2006, the guards had to fight a long battle to win the right to unionize again–this time under AlliedBarton. Now, with their new union and contract, they’ve shown Harvard that they will not take any attacks lying down.
But it wasn’t an easy victory. At the outset of the struggle, many guards were afraid of actively getting involved. Deanna Ross, a night-shift security guard who became a leader in the course of the struggle, noted that when she first got involved there were a lot of rumors going around. She was told that AlliedBarton was going to lose its account and that all the guards would be fired.
Also, because of the hostility of the supervisors, it was hard to organize the campaign. “You couldn’t speak of the union or rallies or anything in front of the supervisors,” Ross said. “They were throwing their weight around . . . when [they] would come into the room we would all have to shut up. [T]here was a couple times when I had to look my supervisors in the face during rallies and I was scared of that. But I figured I had to fight.”
Despite the fear-campaigns and rumors, the struggle 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 3rd, 11 students began a hunger strike that would last nine days and end with 2 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.
Harvard continuously denied any responsibility to intervene in the negotiations, despite the language of the University’s own “Wage and Benefits Parity Policy,” which stipulates that Harvard is prohibited from using outsourcing to lower workers’ wages. Nonetheless, every act of stubbornness on the part of Harvard was matched by a further escalation in the guards’ campaign.
On Thursday, May 17, 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 occurring during graduation.
This seems to have tipped the balance and by the end of May, the union and Harvard had reached a tentative agreement.
For many guards, this victory is significant not only because of the wage concessions in the contract, but because of the new-found confidence and respect the guards have gained in the workplace.
“Once you stand up and you show that this can be done, it changes you,” said Ross. “People were really, really scared. But once they saw people fighting . . . there were a lot more guards that stood up. Now, everyone talks about the union out in the open. We’re definitely more together.”
For Ross, this fight has taught her a lot about what it will take for workers everywhere to win better working conditions. She insists that the guards’ victory is just one “small stone in a big statue. It’s just the beginning.” She continues, “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. It can.”
KEITH ROSENTHAL is an activist in Boston, MA. He can be reached at email@example.com