Administration rebuffs efforts to unionize workers

As unionization efforts gain traction on campus, administrators have kicked off a decisive campaign to convince targeted employees to reject collective bargaining.

This struggle has reopened decades-old tensions, with pro-union organizers calling Tufts’ actions misleading and heavy-handed.

Specifically, the university is responding to the Tufts Employee Association’s (TEA) efforts to organize the school’s 1,200 clerical and technical workers.

“We don’t believe that unionization is in the best interest of Tufts or its employees,” Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell told the Daily in an e-mail. “[Unionization] would likely create a more rigid environment, hamper flexibility, and make individualized decisions difficult or impossible.”

Administrators, in a flurry of recent activity, have communicated this position to employees and aimed to counteract organizers’ persistent presence on campus.

But the organizers, spurred on by worker interest and the economic downturn, maintain that they have staying power. They have called on the administration to tone down its efforts, which they feel have intimidated workers.

“The amount of fear on campus is palpable, and someone at the top ought to be very clear that people can be for or against a union freely and that nothing bad is going to happen to them because of that,” Kris Rondeau, an organizer for the TEA, told the Daily.

The unionization drive

 While Tufts’ technical and clerical employees, who include library workers, secretaries, administrative assistants and lab technicians, have flirted with unionization since the ’70s, their efforts have recently palpably intensified.

Over the last several months, six full-time TEA organizers have spoken with over 1,000 Tufts workers on all three of the university’s campuses. And Rondeau, whose primary affiliation is with The New Union Project, where she is the director, said the results have been encouraging.

“Since the economic recession, I think there’s a feeling of urgency among Tufts employees to kind of be more serious, work harder, go faster and make it all come true,” she said.

But Tufts has also acted with urgency. Specifically, University President Lawrence Bacow earlier this month sent an e-mail to all employees outlining his opposition to the TEA’s drive; meanwhile, Human Resources released a question-and-answer document and set up anti-unionization workshops for managers and supervisors.

“I don’t believe the formal process mandated by collective bargaining would help us address together the very real challenges Tufts faces in this economy,” Bacow said in his e-mail.

While Tufts’ police and facilities employees are unionized, Bacow said that clerical and technical workers already enjoy close relationships with their superiors and would not benefit from organizing.

According to Campbell, the university has been so forthcoming with its opposition to the ongoing unionization push because it is an important issue for workers.

“We believe it’s appropriate to provide a clear articulation of the university’s position because we believe our employees deserve to know our position and understand the reasons for that position,” she said.

As part of the back and forth between organizers and the administration, a fresh dispute has also emerged about the university’s solicitation policies.

Organizers have been visiting employees during their workdays, and Tufts officials have labeled this behavior as inappropriate.

“The Tufts Employee Association is not affiliated with Tufts University,” the Human Resources question-and-answer document reads. “Accordingly, it is treated by the University like any other outside organization. University rules prohibit solicitation by outside organizations in the workplace, and this organization is covered by the same policies.”

The document also outlines restrictions on solicitation between co-workers and on the distribution of materials.

“Our intention is to enforce [our] rules if they are violated,” Campbell said.

But Rondeau argued that Tufts is selectively mobilizing the regulations, which she said are not normally enforced, against union organizers.

“The way [Tufts] works has nothing to do with those policies,” she said. “Those policies are not really in effect.”

Disputes over results

For the Tufts workers who have supported collective bargaining, unions can serve as a way to make their voices heard and to better their financial situations.

“There are a lot of issues of job security, definitely issues of pay,” a Tisch Library employee, who requested anonymity on the grounds that the university is opposing unionization efforts, told the Daily.

In his case, he is hoping that a union could help him earn more progressive pay raises.

“[I’m] stuck in this thing where I’m always perpetually in the middle of my pay range,” he said. “It’s impossible to get to the top.”

Still, he said that the most important benefit in his mind would be the ability to have a voice in the decision-making process.

“I think the university loses by not being able to really, sincerely tap into the abilities of a lot of people on the staff,” he said. “The structure of the way things work often doesn’t allow people to have real input and control.”

But the university has contested the notion that collective bargaining would allow for more productive relationships between workers and managers.

According to Campbell, a union, as the exclusive bargainer for workers, would actually throw a wrench in efforts to further develop mutually beneficial agreements.

“We strive to promote open, collaborative communication and mutual trust and respect, and we can do this more effectively when managers and employees interact directly without the presence of an outside third party,” she said.

In his e-mail, Bacow also argued that the university can meaningfully listen to its clerical and technical workers without a union.

“We have long placed a high priority on the well being of all of our employees,” he said, citing the university’s efforts to avoid layoffs during the recession.

But Rondeau challenged the university’s portrait of unions, noting that they do not preclude employees from working out individual problems with their bosses.

Either way, unionization would certainly streamline the number of voices involved in negotiations, according to Economics Lecturer Jeremy Luallen.

While he was not familiar with the specific details of the TEA’s efforts, he said that unions’ monopolization of negotiations is typically a gamble.

“When workers organize in a union, you’re basically orchestrating one single voice to represent issues,” he said. “There’s no way you can expect one single union to exactly represent the interests of everyone.”

Meanwhile, the administration has questioned the economic benefits that unions typically promise.

“Under the law, an employer is not obliged to agree to any changes proposed by a union,” Campbell said. “Compensation and benefits are subject to negotiation and can go up, down or stay the same.”

She added that unions often require pay to be based on seniority rather than merit, which would limit Tufts’ flexibility to make necessary distinctions.

At Harvard, though, the results have been encouraging, unionization advocates say.

The TEA is based off of the model of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), which represents around 5,000 employees.

The TEA is linked to the HUTCW, as well as unions at the Cambridge Health Alliance, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care.

The HUCTW won recognition in 1988, and since then, according to its director, Bill Jaeger, it has made headway in the arenas of health-care coverage, child care, scheduling, compensation and employee housing.

“I think that Harvard officials have a stronger opinion all the time of what our union and our members can do to help Harvard figure out its challenges,” Jaeger told the Daily.

A chilling effect?

Supporters of unionization at Tufts have said that the university’s hard-line approach to their efforts has left some employees afraid that they will face retaliation if they advocate for collective bargaining.

“It has had a chilling effect to some degree on me and people I’ve talked to,” the Tisch Library employee said in reference to Bacow’s e-mail and Human Resources’ question-and-answer packet. “I get the impression that this is no longer a campus where there’s free speech.”

But Campbell said that the administration is not looking to intimidate workers. “Tufts respects the right of employees to decide for themselves whether to join or not to join a union,” she said. “The university’s communications are intended to educate employees so they can make an informed choice.”

Along with the written material the university has provided, Human Resources is holding workshops for managers and supervisors.

In an e-mail inviting certain Medford campus employees to attend, Vice President for Human Resources Kathe Cronin said that the training sessions are a response to “the swiftness and persistence” of ongoing unionization efforts at Tufts.

“They have been calling and visiting [workers] in offices, clinics, and labs on all three campuses,” she wrote. “While we all may have differing philosophical opinions of unions in general, the university’s position is clear: we do not believe that our clerical and technical employees require a union in order to feel respected.”

Cronin declined to comment to the Daily on Human Resources’ campaign, instead referring questions to Campbell.

The Tisch staffer is not expecting the workshops to be productive.

“I sort of get the impression that [they’re] going to be pretty heavy-handed,” he said.

Beyond the spirit of the university’s position, organizers have also taken issue with some factual representations, saying that the administration has misrepresented the amount employees would likely pay in dues and misleadingly implied that even those who oppose the union would have to pay some type of fee.

Rondeau said that while unions may legally be allowed to require fees from employees who decide against joining, she has never seen that happen.

In the unions she works with, “if someone chooses not to join, there are no penalties and have never been and never will be,” she said.

“It’s incredibly stupid, immoral and impractical,” she said of extracting payments from nonmembers.

According to Rondeau, suggestions otherwise are “just intended to scare people.”

Looking backward, moving forward

During the ’70s, relaxed laws expanded the ability of university employees to unionize, and since then, the issue has spread to campuses across the country.

In most cases, unionization bids have drawn sharp criticisms from reluctant administrations.

“It may be that in universities in particular, it’s probably hard to get used to the idea that employees want to participate,” Rondeau said. “I think it’s just a legacy of old times.”

While Tufts organizers are looking to Harvard’s model for guidance, that effort, too, entailed overcoming official opposition from the administration.

The Harvard union’s 1988 victory was “hard won,” according to Jaeger.

At Harvard, he said, the union and the administration now have a productive partnership, but that is not the case at all universities. The clerical and technical union at Yale, for example, has had a consistently turbulent relationship with the administration there.

But where there is success, the movement often draws recruits who then become part of larger union efforts. Rondeau and Jaeger, for example, both worked as Harvard staffers before becoming involved with unionization.

At Tufts, collective-bargaining advocates in the ’80s lost a close unionization election, and the precursors to the TEA have been around since the ’90s.

While the future of organizing at Tufts remains uncertain, Rondeau foresees success, and said that a union could form as early as next year.

Still, she wants to make sure that the union has firm foundations before it begins operating.

“We’re actually building an organization, so one of the things we do is make sure that the internal structure is right and proper,” Rondeau said. “Another thing we do is make sure that people have training.”

If organizers get majority support among clerical and technical workers, the administration has pledged cooperation.

“We would work to foster a good relationship with the union, as we have with our existing unions,” Campbell said.

In the meantime, though, Tufts officials plan to continue opposing the unionization drive.

But Rondeau expects the current anti-union push to eventually run out of steam. “The university has to work really, really hard to keep up this level of anti-union campaign for a long time,” she said. “They’re going to exhaust their resources soon.”