Blows Against the Empire

One Kitchen Worker's Dealings With Harvard the Employer

A few months ago at Radcliffe, the University's dining hall management came up with the idea of putting little name tags on our uniforms. The supervisors went around asking the workers what names or nicknames they wanted on the tags. When they came to me, I said I wanted the name "shop steward" printed on my tag, since that's what I was. This they refused to do, explaining that was not at all the type of thing they meant.

This year, in my capacity as shop steward, I have presented several safety grievances to the managers of Radcliffe dining halls. In September, I presented a grievance to assistant manager Richard Montville about the practice of carrying 50-75 pounds of meat and food-stuffs from house to house in workers' arms or on their shoulders or backs. Montville agreed that this was indeed a safety hazard. He promised to provide a car or delivery truck and also two-wheelers for workers to use and to see to it that workers did not endanger their safety by carrying heavy items by hand.

In January, an employee named Lucerne Joseph fell downstairs and injured his back and legs so badly that he is still under a doctor's care and has not yet been able to return to work. On February 17, when discussing with my co-workers five grievances I had just submitted that morning, I learned that Joseph had fallen while carrying food supplies from North House to Currier. This meant that Montville had ignored my earlier grievance and had neglected to enforce safe procedures. I was shocked and amazed at this neglect on the part of a man who is responsible for the safety of more than 100 employees.

The day I found out about the safety violation was also the day I got suspended, supposedly for arguing about how to cook cauliflower. What actually happened was that Montville had learned I had submitted five grievances that morning and was angry. He came out and tried to find fault with my cooking. He started yelling with me about my pre-cooking of the cauliflower. He ridiculed me and belittled me in front of everyone. I told him that I knew he was angry, not about the cauliflower, but about the grievances, and I told him what I had just learned about the Lucerne Joseph injury. When I told him that a manager who shows so little concern for the safety of the workers under him should be removed from a position of responsibility, he immediately had me suspended for being "insubordinate."

One of the five grievances I submitted on February 17 was a safety grievance pertaining to the cutting of frozen ice cream. In the smaller dining rooms of North House (Holmes and Moors) the cooks must cut the 24-pound large ice cream cylinder into two squat cylinders with a sharp knife as it rotates. My grievance stated: "[The blocks of ice cream] are very hard and slippery as well as frozen, making them hard to cut. An accident while doing this could kill whoever is doing it. I am asking that this process be stopped immediately." But on March 3 the manager, Frances Sweeney, denied my grievance, claiming that this method of cutting the ice cream cylinders is "a normal procedure" and "a long standing practice." Do they have to wait until the knife slips some day and stabs someone in the stomach before they put a stop to this?


A problem that can be as important to the well-being of workers as safety hazards is the matter of warning slips. Warning slips are reprimands which are supposed to be given to employees for unsatisfactory performance or rule infractions. I would like to think that they are given in order to help us correct our faults and flaws. However, there are no clear guidelines as to when a warning slip should be given, so the supervisors can easily discriminate against employees they don't like, such as shop stewards.

Warning slips are a very serious matter for us. When a person goes to the employees' credit union for a loan, credit union administrators check to see if any warnings are on his record. The number of warning slips needed to prevent a loan is not known, but having warning slips on your record can prevent you from obtaining money. Warning slips also hinder a person from getting a summer job or renting an apartment, or anything for which a reference is needed, including job promotions.

A good example of the misuse of warning slips is their issuance against employees who have been legitimately absent due to illness. Management has made a series of incredible statements to justify this practice. Edward Powers, director of employee relations, said last fall that "Regardless of doctors' reports employees who frequently are out...are unsatisfactory employees," to which his assistant Charles Off added, "It is an employee's responsibility to remain healthy" (Harvard Independent, Nov. 13-19, 1975). The following statement by Radcliffe manager Sweeney appears on the warning slip she issued to a woman worker who had been sick: "I must point out that it is an employee's responsibility to maintain a standard of health which will enable her to report to work regularly as scheduled. Failure to do so may result in further disciplinary action, including suspension or termination." One woman who received such a warning slip reported to work on the very day she received the slip, even though she was sick. She was so upset at the insulting reprimand and at the attitudes it represented that she broke down and cried. It is quite apparent that there is a total disregard for the employees' health and welfare by the University.

Many people ask, "Why has Sherman Holcombe become so hated and abused by the management? What about the other stewards, aren't they doing their job, too?" To this I answer, yes, they are, in fact many of them also have been hit with foolish warnings. But for the past year and a half that I've been a shop steward, I have been raising an issue that the University is especially anxious to keep swept under the carpet. I am speaking of the grievances I have raised about the non-posting of job opportunities. I believe it is mainly because of raising this subject that I have become so unpopular with management.

Why is the non-posting of jobs so important? Article 13.2 of our contract states, "Any vacancies occurring in the Food Services Department of the University will be posted for five (5) days on the bulletin boards so that the present employees may make application for such positions if they so desire." The purpose of the article in the contract is to ensure that all employees will have an equal opportunity to be considered for promotion on the basis of merit and seniority. But I've seen this provision of our contract ignored time and time again at Radcliffe by assistant manager Montville. He has promoted kitchen men to cooks at least five times in my experience without posting the job, purely on the basis of favoritism. Even when the worker promoted really deserves the promotion, he is made to feel that it is being done as a personal favor from his supervisor and that he owes a debt of personal gratitude. This is insulting to the dignity of the worker promoted, as well as unfair to the workers who don't even have a chance to be considered for promotion.

The practice of favoritism also violates Harvard's affirmative action program. Usually Montville favors young white males. Women, older people, Puerto Ricans and blacks are at a disadvantage. In the three years I've been at Harvard, four or five women have left cooking positions at Radcliffe and all have been replaced by men, without the job being posted.

I think Harvard would like to be rid of me because I have hit a sensitive nerve which goes to the core of Harvard's unfair labor practices and violations of equal opportunity and affirmative action.

Another reason why I am having problems with management is that I have strongly voiced opposition to certain University policies and proposals, such as the proposal calling for the elimination of breakfasts in all but five dining halls. If this proposal had been accepted, I believe that in most of the halls only one working shift would have been used, eliminating low-seniority, part-time and student workers. In a special edition of the kitchen workers' newsletter I gave a very candid opinion as to the effect it would have on both students and employees.

I feel that my kitchen workers' newsletters are very upsetting to the administration. I try to present clear facts to the readers about the kitchen workers' situation. But management has often told me that it is not my right to question. If a duly elected union representative doesn't have the right to question, then who does? Powers has called newsletters to students "extremely irresponsible" (The Crimson, October 28, 1975). On October 6, 1975, at a meeting between employees and management planned by me and Montville to discuss our mutual problems, Montville got mad at me for asking a series of questions pertaining to grievances. He then gave me a warning slip for "disrupting" a meeting. But if he can't tell the difference between questioning and "disrupting," that means he has no respect for the democratic rights of Harvard University employees.

Why are students and faculty allowed to speak out about issues pertaining to their welfare while non-academic employees cannot do so without suffering reprisals? Why are workers such as myself and Paul Trudel of Central Copy Services treated so badly because we believe in bettering our working conditions and our lives? Why do most workers only complain about their gripes in private, afraid to exercise their constitutional right to free speech in public?

At the first hearing over my recent suspension, the judge in the case was none other than Sweeney, the manager who was under investigation at the time for having insulted me on the basis of my race. Why aren't employees allowed due process? Due process is necessary in the courts and should be prevalent at Harvard, especially since Harvard trains so many judges, lawyers, ambassadors and cabinet members. All people have a right to a fair trial and the right to face their accusers. The supervisor who suspended me was not even present at the hearing, nor was there any statement of his case against me. I only learned Montville's version of what had happened when Sweeney sent me her ruling on the case. Her ruling sided with his distorted version of the events, which he had given her in private.

Harvard's labor problems will not vanish unless and until the University starts treating union workers properly. Harvard has gotten rid of Paul Trudel and is trying to get rid of Sherman Holcombe, but there will always be others to take our places. The voices of workers on campus are getting louder. Some day all employees at Harvard will stand together united, regardless of which union we belong to, regardless of our race, sex, religion or nationality. It will be a day of reckoning for Harvard, because the University will have to recognize that democratic rights are not just for a privileged minority.

In Harvard Yard there is a statue of the founder of this University. That statue was placed there by workers. The buildings of Harvard were constructed, the trees were chopped down, the land was ploughed up and foundations were put in by workers. Workers were here long before the vast bureaucracy of managers and administrators. When will we obtain the right to be heard, to be consulted on issues that affect our lives? When will we take our rightful place as members of the Harvard community?

Sherman L. Holcombe is employed by the University as a kitchen worker.