Harvard Custodial Workers Organize to Protect Their Jobs

By Michael Ruiz

Last week, custodians at Harvard University rallied for a guarantee that the university will not lay off workers in the spring. Harvard does not directly employ a large portion of the custodial workers that manage the custodial services on campus. Rather, the University has contracts with several subcontractors which employ many of the custodial workers.

According to Doris Landaverde, a custodian and local organizer with SEIU 32BJ, the effort to organize contract and full-time equivalent (FTE) custodial workers on the ground has posed challenges. Efforts to organize routinely go beyond the typical work day and into the night to reach as many workers as possible. As one of the lead organizers, Landaverde notes that many of the contract workers are immigrants protected by DACA and TPS and thus feel as though their bargaining power is severely limited and that organizing or striking will put their immigration status in jeopardy. 

When the pandemic caused the shutdown of Harvard campuses, the university allowed FTE custodians to utilize portions of their sick time to maintain roughly 70 percent of their salary but did not apply this policy to the contractors, instead claiming that the contract agencies would need to establish their own policy for the workers. Organizers quickly turned to local elected officials including the Cambridge City Council and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey (D). The council unanimously passed a resolution supporting Harvard custodial workers and strongly urged the University to extend contracts. 

For years, universities and other large employers have used subcontractors to outsource as much of their workforce as possible. Not only do subcontracted workers make less per hour, but they are denied the benefits and job-security granted to in-house workers, and subcontracting allows the primary employer to keep workers out of unions. Tragically, the pandemic threatens to make a bad situation worse, and Harvard administrators, who sit on a $41 billion endowment, are exposed for their naked exploitation and cruelty. Many of the custodians have given years of service to the university; Harvard can and should take care of the workers who keep the university running!

The custodians deserve not just the sympathy but the active support of the labor movement and of socialists. If the custodians stand united, and feel the community at their back, they can not only win their demands for job security, but also bring the hyper-exploited contract workers in-house and into their union.

Michael Ruiz is an Engineer, Local Organizer, Progressive Massachusetts Member and Boston DSA Member. 

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