Harvard Educational Review
  1. We Can't Eat Prestige

    The Women Who Organized Harvard

    By John Hoerr

    Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. 292 pp. $29.95.

    In We Can't Eat Prestige, freelance writer John Hoerr offers a passionate view of the unionism practiced by the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). This union, organized by women workers and a few men, represents Harvard's support staff - that group of workers most often invisible in the literature on higher education. They are the secretaries, library and laboratory assistants, dental hygienists, accounting clerks, and other office workers who "perform vital services yet [have] no voice, or standing, or recognition of any sort" (p. 3). Hoerr writes that these workers had to put up with exploitative management policies that denied them respect and decent wages.

    Kris Rondeau, a former laboratory research assistant at the Harvard Medical School, led a fifteen--year struggle to establish the union in the face of fierce opposition from then--President Derek Bok, deans of schools, and staff lawyers who worked to defeat the union. Some workers (including Rondeau initially) also opposed the union, viewing unions as incompatible with the prestige and status that working at Harvard conferred. Other workers resented the "patronizing and condescending way that the men - faculty members, administrators, and postdoctoral assistants - treated female research assistants" (p. 27). For example, Leslie Sullivan, a research assistant in the School of Public Health, thought about leaving her dead--end job, "but where would she go? If she couldn't get fair and equal treatment at Harvard University, the institutional paragon of liberal enlightenment, then where?" (p. 28).

    The push for a union grew out of the women's movement of the early 1970s and efforts of women in the Harvard Medical area to achieve equality and end discriminatory treatment. In the initial request to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the organizers included only the medical area. Harvard's lawyers appealed, saying that the union vote should include all support staff. The NLRB denied that appeal, but the union nevertheless lost the 1977 elections. The union organizers also lost in 1981. However, in an appeal to the NLRB that took two years to be decided, Harvard lawyers required that all support staff participate in the vote to unionize or not.

    Union organizers were successful in 1988, winning the election with 50.7 percent of the vote. Hoerr argues that this narrow win was a result of Harvard's aggressive anti--union campaign that included "captive audience" meetings of support staff who were lectured by personnel who "used the old debating trick of citing facts and making generalizations that no one in the audience would have enough knowledge to contradict" (p. 196). Additionally, there were attempts to create racial division among support staff. However, union organizers emphasized its guiding principles: "collective voice, pay equity for women, child care and parental leave programs, job flexibility, and a career program" (p. 197). The two most important principles they put forth were self--representation and participation. The union slogan, "It's not anti--Harvard to be pro--union," appealed to support staff who wanted to "make the institution even better than it was" (p. 199).

    Hoerr points out the irony that Harvard's President Derek Bok and faculty members asserted "the right of workers to form a union yet fought unionization efforts of workers on campus." In a letter to all employees, Bok wrote, "I am not at all persuaded in this case that union representation and collective bargaining will improve the working environment or help us to sustain the highest quality of education and research" (p. 204).

    Immediately after the 1988 vote, Harvard's administration asked the NLRB to overturn the election, claiming that the union had created an "intimidating atmosphere" on election day (p. 212). What was the intimidating atmosphere? Union organizers had decorated Harvard Yard with balloons. The NLRB hearing judge dismissed Harvard's objections to the election. Further, he "chastised the Harvard lawyers for distorting testimony" and wrote, "a pattern emerges that transcends what might lightly be dismissed as an aggressive adversarial approach" (p. 221).

    Hoerr details the difficult decision Bok made to stop fighting the union and asserts that he was serious about developing a "relationship that would be valuable, interesting, and even new" (p. 225). Under Bok's leadership, management and the union agreed on a contract that acknowledged that support staff should have a role in governance. Unlike other union contracts, HUCTW's contract did not include detailed rules and rights, but offered general guidelines, a problem--solving process that encouraged workers to represent themselves, and joint councils (including union and management representatives) to give workers a voice in decisionmaking.

    The author notes that the union has produced economic benefits for workers and that many workers have benefited from active participation in union and joint activities. He concludes that, after three years, HUCTW has not created a revolution. It has created "a community of workers" involved "in redesigning their workplace and work life" (p. 244). As Hoerr points out, however, the partnership that Bok initiated did not continue under the leadership of now--President Neil Rudenstine. Under Rudenstine's leadership, "much of the creativity had been throttled and the new relationship that Bok envisioned existed in outline only" (p. 260).

    Hoerr is a specialist in labor reporting and the author of And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry. This background may help us understand his fascination with HUCTW and his emphasis on how it differs from traditional, male--dominated unions characterized by contentious strikes and rule--bound contracts. It may also explain why he glosses over the increase in rules in the HUCTW contract since 1995. Hoerr also relies too much on HUCTW success stories - those workers who have been able to actively participate in decisionmaking through joint councils - neglecting those workers in departments that do not allow joint councils. He apparently failed to talk to any rank--and--file workers who have been discouraged from pursuing complaints or whose supervisors remain convinced that clerical workers have little to contribute and let them know that they "were not and never will be an integral part of the teaching and research function" (p. 254).

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    Book Notes

    We Can't Eat Prestige
    By John Hoerr

    The Seed Is Mine
    By Charles van Onselen

    The Essential Piaget
    Edited by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonëche

    Journey With Children
    By Frances P. Lothrop Hawkins

    Guided Reading
    By Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

    One Child, Two Languages
    By Patton O. Tabors

    Taking Note
    By Brenda Miller Power