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From the Wrestling Mat to the Bargaining Table

Paul Curran, Harvard’s Labor Relations Director, Enters Negotiations at a Tense Time

By Brandon J. Dixon, Crimson Staff Writer

At first glance, it might be difficult to picture Paul R. Curran, Harvard’s current Director of Employee and Labor Relations, decked out in a blue wrestlers’ singlet. He stands with the posture of a lawyer, often in a dark suit with a pinstripe-patterned shirt, but almost always grinning.

A colleague of his, Edward Nastari, a staff representative of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, describes Curran as “a friend in the business,” and credits what he believes has been a distinguished career to Curran’s ability to grapple with the stakes on the table for both sides of any negotiation.

Indeed, Curran is no stranger to grappling with difficulties. Curran, who was the first wrestler to be inducted into the University of Massachusetts Boston’s sports hall of fame, said he relishes in the opportunity to tackle labor issues.

“I like labor relations because you get day to day problems between unions and management that you can fix and help everybody else do the operations of the day,” Curran said. “I take great satisfaction in resolving those issues—some are very complicated issues, getting people from different perspectives and trying to get a solution.”

A similar sort of grappling has engaged Curran since those early days on the University mat: first, in a position at the District Attorney’s office, and then in a seat at the bargaining table for many of the City of Boston’s major union negotiations during the past fifteen years. Finally, he arrived at Harvard after being recruited by University administrators.

But Curran did not enter the University during a period of stagnancy. Where before at the city, he was often knee-deep in negotiations at any given time during his career as a labor negotiator, he found himself similarly occupied once arriving on campus. The difference? The mat was emblazoned with a new insignia and the team across the room was not full of colleagues that he knew intimately, but rather strangers that were at the tail end of notably tense negotiations.

A FRENZIED START

In September 2015, members of the bargaining unit for Harvard’s largest employee union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, received word that Bill Murphy, the University’s previous director of labor relations was leaving to assume a similar position at Northeastern University. The news was something like a disorienting bell, and momentarily knocked the negotiators askew in their talks. In the interim between Murphy’s departure and Curran’s appointment, deputy director Polly Scannell headed the negotiation process.

“We were fortunate to have a strong and experienced negotiation team, including a long-tenured Deputy Director who was soon joined by a seasoned new Director,” University Executive Vice President Katie Lapp wrote in an emailed statement.

Though he had dealt with similar labor issues in the past, and had certainly wrestled with some of the overarching tensions of impassioned negotiations, Harvard’s round of talks with HUCTW had already been off to a rocky start. To add to that, the biggest issue on the table was something that has been especially contentious the past few years: health care.

In 2014, Harvard rolled out a health benefits package for its non-unionized employees that was initially criticized for featuring copayments and deductibles that some professors argued would disproportionately burden faculty with family members. After faculty voted unanimously to ask the Harvard Corporation to revise the plan, the University amended that benefits package.

Though Curran entered the fray toward the end of the negotiations, at a time when many topics had been worked through and the preliminary background information had been established, he said he was “comfortable” at the bargaining table.

“It was actually kind of good for me to kind of jump in and be part of a negotiation,” Curran said. “I had to learn the University.”

Donene M. Williams, a member of the negotiation team for HUCTW, said that Curran’s presence neither positively nor negatively affected the process.

“When Paul Curran came, there was a little bit of a—it wasn’t a style change, but he’s new, and Harvard is an enormously complicated place,” Williams said. “Just having a new personality in the room, having to explain some things that until then we’d been able to use as shorthand—that had a little bit of an effect. I’m not sure I would even characterize it as positive or negative, it was just different.”

Bill Jaeger, Executive Director of HUCTW, said Curran was helpful in a “situation that needed somebody to come in and listen with a steady hand to keep things going,” but noted that negotiators were “sort of on [their] way to finding solutions” when Curran arrived.

Along with handling what Jaeger described as a “big, complicated and contentious talk,” Curran simultaneously had to get acclimated with the duties and stakeholders of his office.

“I had all these interviews with people that were set up to kind of meet and greet all the people I would have to deal with in the position,” Curran said. “I had interviews jammed from November to the New Year, so the hardest thing with the negotiations was getting up to speed with the topics because, even though the topics were very similar to what I’d dealt with in the city, they were very nuanced.”

He credits staying afloat during that jam-packed time period to the negotiation team that had been established at the start of the talks.

“They were already seven months deep in the negotiations, and it was well thought out—the team was well thought out, and they were informed,” Curran said.

Though Curran was new to the negotiation tables at Harvard, Curran had encountered the issue before during his tenure in the City of Boston. Curran negotiated a health care benefits package that stretched across various city unions.

“It’s the same,” Curran said. “They’re different challenges, different problems, but it's similar.”

'I DON’T GO'

Those similarities run deeper than you would imagine. Curran and Murphy, his predecessor, share a similar background. They both graduated from Suffolk Law School, and were, at some point, stationed in Boston’s Labor Relations department before coming to Harvard. At the city, Curran led the talks for dozens of the city’s unions, and occasionally parlayed with teacher unions in the city.

“The most complicated things are these negotiations, trying to have a similar theme across the board for all of the 40 unions as far as wages, health insurance, and proposals,” Curran said.

Handling labor relations at Harvard and in Boston is not an altogether different game, according to Curran. The two are similar in the sheer number of employees considered at both institutions. Curran estimates that a “ballpark of 19,000” employees are employed by both Harvard and the City of Boston, although Boston has a higher percentage of unionized workers than Harvard.

Financially, the cost of providing benefits for such a large volume of unionized employees can be staggering. David Sweeney, Chief Financial Officer for the City of Boston, credits what he believe is Boston’s strong track record for managing personnel costs to Curran’s skill at the negotiation table.

“It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of the labor office with over 90 percent of our workforce unionized,” Sweeney said. “He always thought very strategically about what made sense for the city in terms of coming to a deal. It’s a very big loss to the city that he went over to Harvard.”

Curran said he has no intention of leaving Harvard anytime soon.

“I don’t go,” Curran said, chuckling. “I was in the DA’s office for seven years, I was the city for 15. I stay unless I’m getting the boot.”

He credits that to a mission-driven approach to public service.

“I like to be part of something that has a mission to it — I see my role as helping the mission,” Curran explained. “It may be a bit goofy, but I do.”

For Curran, and the Labor Relations Department as a whole, the upcoming summer presents another round of grappling over contentious issues. UNITE HERE Local 26, a Boston-based hotel and food service workers union that represents Harvard’s dining services employees, is set to begin negotiations with the University this June.

Thus far, the situation has been tense. Aided largely by the Student Labor Action Movement, HUDS workers have held a series of rallies and events in advance of the negotiations, pushing for a stronger health care benefits package, higher wages, and increased employment time at the University. Last week, over 200 Harvard affiliates staged a rally in front of Massachusetts Hall where workers reiterated their goals for the upcoming negotiations.

Curran said he plans on focusing on the upcoming negotiations and establishing a “good working relationship” between campus unions and management, especially considering how new he is to the campus.

“It takes time for people to trust you,” Curran said. “You can’t get deals together if people don’t trust you.”

—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at brandon.dixon@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.

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