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As the Sept. 30 expiration date for their current contract approaches, members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers and University administrators continue bi-weekly meetings to discuss the historically contentious contract between Harvard and its biggest union.
“A lot of important and useful groundwork has been laid, but there’s still a great deal of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in,” said Bill Jaeger, the director of HUCTW. “Leadership on both sides are feeling pressure to intensify.”
Katie N. Lapp, the University’s executive vice president, said in a statement that the summer meetings were characterized by “constructive discussion and information sharing.”
Negotiators have failed to meet the deadline multiple times before in the union’s 27-year history, including the last time the contract was renegotiated in 2013, when talks ran over eight months past the deadline, the longest delay in the union’s history. In the event that an agreement is not reached by the deadline, HUCTW leadership said the union will likely continue to operate on its existing contract, as it has done in the past.
Failure to meet the Sept. 30 deadline, Jaeger said, would also mean that a full year will have passed since HUCTW members received a raise.
“From the union’s point of view, that’s an important threshold,” he said.
In addition to salary, health care is an ongoing point of discussion in the contract negotiations.
“There are important and complicated issues on the table, including changes to health care benefits, where negotiations are impacted by broader university decision-making,” Lapp said in the statement.
In fall 2014, the University announced changes in health care benefits for all non-union employees, prompting backlash among professors. Since then, the University Benefits Committee has gone back to the drawing board and recently presented non-union employees with new point of service plans with higher premiums but no deductibles and coinsurance. The committee also removed coinsurance and deductibles on diagnostic tests for the other options.
Though the recent changes do not apply to HUCTW, health care has also been a key element of union negotiations in recent years. Last spring, members of HUCTW and Harvard administrators held a series of informal meetings with public health and policy experts from the University to familiarize both sides with possible solutions to the health care debate. Those meetings, said Carrie E. Barbash, a HUCTW organizer, have been “incredibly helpful” in negotiations with the University so far.
The importance of changes to health care, including more extensive wellness programming and benefits to HUCTW members, emerged in a survey conducted by union leadership last spring to take the temperature of its membership. More than 60 percent of respondents were “very supportive” of increased wellness programming such as exercise classes. In response, the University has utilized its HUCTW negotiations webpage to emphasize current wellness offerings that are already available to HUCTW members, such as low-cost gym memberships and fitness classes.
Barbash and Jaeger said select details from many areas of the survey have been presented at the negotiation meetings, emphasizing debt, rising costs of living, and increased rents as central issues for many HUCTW employees. According to the survey, which had a 60 percent response rate among HUCTW members, after health care, the rising cost of renting was the largest area of concern for members, 56 percent of whom rent their homes.
In addition, last winter’s severe weather highlighted the desire for the new contract to address language regarding flexibility during extreme weather and transportation problems, with 81 percent of respondents saying that the change is “very important.”
With negotiations set to intensify in the coming weeks as the deadline approaches, Jaeger said negotiators are considering lengthening the duration and increasing the frequency of negotiating sessions.
—Staff writer William C. Skinner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wskinner.
—Staff writer Emma K. Talkoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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