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The Great Union Debate

Opinion | November 17, 2010

Not a lot of people will gladly talk about unions today. To many, they seem archaic; to others, unnecessary or even harmful. We only ever seem to hear about them as abusive or inefficient. Sadly, the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act is still held up in Congress, rank-and-file members are reportedly reluctant to engage in politics, and union membership has long been on the decline in this country.

Yet Tufts has been abuzz with ongoing conversations about unions. I have personally talked to friends and peers, faculty and professors, union-workers and administrative officials, all of whom are mostly quite interested in hearing about and discussing what has been happening here at Tufts. The Tufts Daily and the Boston Globe have reported on the union drive, and President Bacow as well as many others in our administration have been outspoken regarding unions, issuing letters to the community and holding conversations in public forums and private meetings.

Most importantly, Tufts clerical and technical employees have been talking about unions. For decades now, employees here in these services—some 1,200 of them, including Tisch and Fletcher librarians, secretaries, dental assistants, animal caretakers, lab workers, and IT professionals—employed on all three campuses have been considering the idea of forming a labor union. They represent one of the biggest labor organizing drives happening presently in the private sector in the United States.
The idea has only gained public traction since the spring of 2009, when 35 employees signed an open letter to the Tufts community expressing their interest in organizing along the model of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). They identified themselves as the Tufts Employee Association (TEA). Of course, the administration was already aware of the drive. Kris Rondeau, the head of the HUCTW, had approached Tufts’ Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell to apprise her of the effort before it was made public, and a response came promptly in the form of another open letter to the Tufts community stating the administration’s interest in workers not organizing a union. Accordingly, Human Resources issued a Q&A pamphlet entitled “Union Organizing at Tufts: Questions & Answers” featuring six black and white pages regarding exactly how and why a union is not in the employees’ interest.

HUCTW has been successfully bargaining with the administration at Harvard since 1988, and is a part of the landscape there. Nearly two hundred clerical workers at Harvard were laid off during the current recession.  The Director of Labor Relations at Harvard told the Harvard Crimson that despite “challenging” times, “[both] parties worked together respectfully” and came to a “successful agreement” on their most recent contract negotiation, which, according to the Crimson, “includes strong language that seeks to ensure that the Union and the University work together to manage layoffs.” The union leadership concurred.
The Tufts Employee Association is not officially affiliated with Tufts. In fact, the Human Resources brochure repeatedly reminds, “The Tufts Employee Association is not a university-sanctioned organization.” Accordingly, union organizers are treated as third-party solicitors.  This means that they technically are not allowed to solicit—in other words, to talk about a union to workers at the workplace. Perhaps those of you who have been at Tufts for a couple of years noticed when, all of a sudden, little metallic “No Trespassing” signs appeared in the corners of every door of every building on campus. These were put there as a direct response to TEA organizing. The university treats union organizers as they would loitering salespeople: ideas and products alike violate the university’s no-solicitation policy.

What’s more, employees themselves are technically prohibited from discussing the idea of forming a union except during “non-working time.” I asked Patricia Campbell what “non-working time” meant, wondering if it included, say, a casual discussion with a colleague in between tasks. She assured me that Tufts has no interest in this sort of policing, and that of course workers could talk about the union with each other, so long as it did not interfere with their work. Her statement is at odds with the official position of Tufts, as laid out in the Human Resources Q&A, which states, “solicitation is not allowed unless both employees are on non-working time.”

This is not President Bacow’s first experience with unions or anti-union campaigns. In 1982 he authored a book Bargaining for Job Safety and Health, in which he argued that organized labor is a vital ingredient to workplace safety. Two decades later, however, when graduate students at Tufts attempted to form a union, Bacow apparently felt differently. According to a Daily article from February, 2002, Bacow wrote on the Tufts website that, although he was explicitly not “anti-union,” he believed “it would be a mistake for graduate students to unionize,” arguing that “the relationship between faculty-member and graduate student is not one of employer to employee.” Fortunately for Bacow, the votes were eventually invalidated by the National Labor Relations Board under President Bush, and the union never formed. But it should be noted that the line of reasoning used then is akin to that being used today. Unions are fine, just not here at Tufts, and not in this case.

The term “anti-union” is once again being disputed. When a friend and I had the pleasure to sit down for lunch and a chat last spring with  Dickens Mathieu, Tufts’ senior legal counsel, he told me he was unhappy that we would refer to Tufts as being “anti-union.” Presumably, there is a difference between a public announcement of disapproval of something, and being against that thing. Mathieu put it to me thus: Suppose I, your humble author, were courting Mathieu’s sister, and Mathieu wanted to know if I was of questionable character. Hasn’t he the duty to impart to his sister his opinion, so long as he claims only the right to persuade, and not to decide?

The Jumbo-Janitor Alliance (JJA), of which I am a member, has taken it upon itself to get the community talking about this union drive. You may have seen the JJA outside Tisch Library, offering free cookies or brownies to anyone willing to endorse the position that free choice is a good thing, whether it be over baked goods or forming a labor union. The JJA has also been collecting signatures for a petition calling on the incoming administration to change course. “We’re committed to the rights of all the workers at Tufts, not just the janitors,” said senior and co-chair of the group Phil Bene. “And for that reason we feel that it’s necessary to call on the next president to clear the air and end the anti-union campaign against the clerical and technical workers.”

In recent months, the administration has been conspicuously silent on the issue. The union has busily solicited and won letters of support from Senators Kerry and Kennedy, Mayor Menino, and Tufts alumni in an open letter to the Daily; launched a new website; and shown no sign of shrinking the campaign. The administration has stepped back, claiming in effect that it has said what it has to say, now let come what may. Meanwhile, the Tufts community is anticipating a new administration, and while the dust settles from the initial anti-union campaign of the current administration, the conversations continue.