Harvard custodial workers OK strike

Authorize action if contract talks fail by deadline

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / November 13, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - Harvard University custodians voted unanimously yesterday to authorize a strike if their union’s bargaining committee fails to negotiate a new contract with the college by the end of Tuesday, according to union officials.

“All of the people who have cleaned and worked very hard for many years at Harvard are going to do whatever it takes, including strike, to make sure Harvard does the right thing for all workers,’’ said Rocio Saenz, president of Local 615 of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

About 230 custodians cast the vote inside the First Parish Cambridge Church, then spilled outside where they were joined by students from the national Occupy movement - some who have set up tents at the university - for a rolling rally around Harvard Yard.

They carried a banner reading, “Justice for Janitors,’’ and placards that read, “We are the 99%,’’ a reference to the Occupy movement’s protest over the inequality between the country’s wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the population.

Harvard University released a statement defending its treatment of custodians and its efforts to reach a contract before the current one expires Tuesday.

“We remain optimistic that the negotiations will be productive for both the University and the people who help to make it one of the world’s premier institutions for research and education,’’ the statement said.

Harvard said it has increased the hourly wage for its custodians by 36 percent since 2005 and pays more toward their health care benefits than many other institutions. The university said it also grants eligibility for health care coverage to custodians who work as few as 16 hours per week.

But custodians, union leaders, and students complained during yesterday’s protest that Harvard, one of the most prestigious and well-endowed universities in the country, does not do enough for its blue-collar workers.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU, met with students from Occupy Harvard who have been sleeping in tents in Harvard Yard since last Wednesday.

“I think the students putting pressure on the employers to do the right thing is hugely inspiring to the janitors,’’ Henry said afterward.

Karen Narefsky, a Harvard senior, said custodians who work at Harvard aren’t treated with the same respect as other employees and many of them are allowed to work only part time.

“A lot of them have to work second and third jobs to feed their families,’’ Narefsky said. “Harvard is trying to squeeze work into as few hours as possible. We see Harvard as representing the economic injustice that the Occupy movement is protesting.’’

Edith Rivas, a 36-year-old single mother of two from Charlestown, said she has been working 20 hours a week, cleaning office bathrooms at the university, for five years.

“I can’t support my family,’’ said Rivas, who earns $19,000 a year. “I’m always asking for more hours. I know they can give me more, and they won’t.’’

Another custodian, Margarita Plietez, 51, of Somerville, said she’s grateful for the $17.50 an hour she earns, but the split shifts she is required to work make it difficult to sleep and spend time with her children. She works 9 p.m. to midnight and 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. five days a week.

“They say we can’t do any changes,’’ said Plietez, who works at Harvard through a cleaning company that has a contract with the university.

Wayne Langley, director of education for SEIU’s Local 615, said there are 659 custodians who work at Harvard, which includes 320 university employees. The remainder work for private companies that have contracts with the university.

Contract negotiations are focusing on health care, wages, full-time work, work load, and work rules, Langley said. Yesterday’s membership vote authorized the union’s bargaining committee to call a strike if contract talks break down.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume tomorrow and continue through Tuesday until the midnight deadline.

“No one really wants to strike,’’ said Langley, but he added that workers are prepared to do that if it means protecting their jobs and maintaining gains made over the past decade. “In America today there are very few good jobs. We need to protect the ones we have and Harvard can afford that.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at

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