Across the country, March 1st protest actions tended to concentrate on the debt-ridden plight of students. On the snowy Thursday evening at Harvard University, the focus was somewhat different.
Fifty protesters gathered in front of Holyoke Center in Cambridge to rally against the university’s secretive, top-down handling of the restructuring of Harvard’s libraries, including plans to cut a substantial number of its 930 full-time employees. Rank-and-file members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) were joined by students, faculty, alumni, and participants in Occupy Boston and Occupy Harvard.
“You say layoffs, we say back off! You say cut backs, we say fight back!” picketers chanted as they circled. “Harvard HAS the money,” read one man’s hand-lettered sign. Evan Greer, a radical singer/songwriter, belted out lyrics that he had penned for the occasion:
Is this a corporation, or a university?
‘Cause we’re still learning lots about this crap economy!
The protesters joined him for the chorus: “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?”
The impetus for the rally began a few weeks before. On February 10, Harvard Library unveiled its plans for a new organizational structure aimed at eliminating “redundancy” across the university’s 73 libraries. At the time, many staff members were looking forward to the changes. Anna Aizman, a graduate student in Comparative Literature who works part-time as an assistant librarian, explains that her full-time colleagues were initially “excited that uncatalogued collections would finally be organized and recorded. These are people passionate about knowledge.”
However, on February 13, the university foisted a surprise on its work force. A letter from the Vice President of Human Resources offered voluntary early retirement to 275 members of the library staff. The buy-out package followed two previous rounds of layoffs, in 2004 and 2008-9. It was also out of synch with librarians’ shared impression that their facilities are currently understaffed.
Just three days after the proffered buy-out, picketers in support of Harvard’s library workers listened outside Lamont Library as one librarian’s open letter to the administration was read aloud. “We feel terrified and threatened with losing our jobs,” the letter said. “This is a devastating time for library staff. Please don’t send us any more upbeat, jargon-filled emails.”
Desiree Goodwin, also a Harvard librarian, says that a month later almost nothing has been clarified. The lack of information “has left room for rampant speculation about likely scenarios, which the administrators have still refused to confirm, deny, or clarify,” she states. “We need more information about what these changes mean for staff.”
“Historically, Harvard has needed a push to give fair conditions to its workers,” Giuliana Chamedes, a lecturer in the History and Literature program, told the Occupier. She cites the Harvard Living Wage Campaign as an example. The campaign ran from 1998 to 2001 and culminated in a three-week sit-in at the president’s office, which at last spurred the renegotiation of contracts for dining hall workers.
Joshua Koritz, a library assistant and member of the HUCTW, paints a similar image of Harvard’s attitude toward its employees. “The university wants to put on a good facade, but behind that is an overworked, underpaid, and generally terrified work staff,” Koritz says. He notes that over 250 Harvard workers were laid off in 2009, ostensibly because of the recessionary budget crisis. “The work of those people was forced onto the existing workers,” Koritz adds. “The expectation from management is that employees will work as many hours as necessary to finish their work, while only being paid for a 35-hour work week.”
The March 1st rally at Holyoke Center was preceded by an “open forum” with Harvard Provost Alan Garber. Community members had hoped to ask questions and voice concerns about the library’s restructuring and the university’s treatment of workers.
Unfortunately, the forum was anything but open: only questions submitted in advance were considered, and these were selected and read aloud by members of the administration. The small audience was constituted almost exclusively of participants in Occupy Harvard, on the one hand, and university administrators on the other, who nodded as Provost Garber wiled away the hour with inconsequential anecdotes. The voices of those who had come seeking dialog were effectively silenced, and the fate of library workers was barely mentioned.
A similar strategy appears to have governed how the university addressed its library workers directly. “There were a number of public ‘town hall’ meetings scheduled that were later canceled after the negative response to the first,” Desiree Goodwin told the Occupier. “These were replaced by online chats where the questions could be carefully selected in advance.”
At the rally, however, students, union members, and activists returned attention to the university’s treatment of its workers. Geoff Carens, a library worker and Union Representative for the HUCTW, manned the loudspeaker and led the crowd into Harvard Yard. The marchers circled administrative buildings, chanting “Shame on Harvard,” and paused on the steps of Widener Library. Will, a Harvard undergraduate and part of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), spoke to the marchers and vowed to “keep on the pressure” with weekly events.
“Harvard has a surprising number of pro-labor students, and the last few months have been a revelation in terms of how much support they’ve given us,” Carens commented. He called the help of SLAM “invaluable” and also had high praise for Occupy Harvard: “I’m very impressed with Occupy Harvard participants and I’m proud to be working with them.”
What are the chances that this coalition will influence the university’s policies? On the optimistic side, protesters can count on Harvard’s squeamishness regarding anything that might tarnish its brand. There have been unofficial indications from the Director of Labor and Employee Relations, Bill Murphy, that management is likely to revise its proposals based on the push-back from students and workers.
However, union leadership has done next to nothing to support the protests. Joshua Koritz worries: “Without real pressure from workers, students, and faculty, along with community support, the Harvard administration will do whatever they want. As long as the HUCTW refuses to reach out to those who are already acting in solidarity, it is unlikely our demonstrations will get much bigger than about 200. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.”
Nonetheless, the Harvard community appears resolute in its fight against the university’s corporate interests and practices. One of the next actions planned is a “speak out” on Tuesday, March 27th, at noon in Harvard’s Science Center. The event will expose the damage already done to the libraries and attempt to put additional pressure on the administration.
“We are going to force Harvard to pay a price for any layoffs,” Carens promises. “We’re going to give the 1%, in this case the Harvard Corporation, a major, major headache.”