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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
More than 80 custodians, security guards, local officials, and union supporters marched in Harvard Yard Tuesday to demand higher wage increases from the University.
The custodians’ and the security guards’ one-year contracts, negotiated earlier in the pandemic, originally expired Nov. 15, but were extended until Friday, according to a press release from 32BJ Service Employees International Union, the union representing both groups of workers. Negotiations for the new contracts started in mid-October.
Prior to the rally, Harvard offered an initial four percent increase in wages, with subsequent 2.25 percent annual raises for a five-year contract, according to 32BJ bargaining committee members. The union, however, has proposed higher increases across a four-year contract. Both parties met today to discuss new proposals immediately after the rally.
Tuesday’s rally began with remarks from Roxana L. Rivera, vice president of 32BJ.
“We’re here because there’s a thousand essential workers here on campus that work as custodians and security officers,” Rivera told the crowd outside of University Hall. “Their contract expires this coming Friday, and we’re here to say, ‘Harvard, give us a raise!’”
Rivera then led demonstrators through Massachusetts Avenue, around Harvard Yard, and in front of Massachusetts Hall, where 32BJ members and local officials spoke.
Cambridge City Council unanimously passed a resolution on Nov. 22 urging Harvard to “offer a fair contract that ensures wage increases” to the workers represented by the union in order to help them and their families deal with the pandemic’s effects and beyond.
The resolution also noted that the majority of 32BJ members are immigrants and people of color who “have shouldered an outsized share of the economic burden on their communities, which have felt the worst health and socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, along with Vice-Mayor Alanna M. Mallon and Cambridge City Councilors Marc C. McGovern and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, attended the rally to deliver the resolution to the University.
“We’ve had a history of coming here, showing up, and being there for one reason: saying to Harvard, ‘Come on, you can do better, and you need to do better,’” Siddiqui said in an interview before the rally.
Addressing the crowd in front of Massachusetts Hall, 32BJ bargaining committee member Itelvina Fernandes said custodians worked on campus during the pandemic at tremendous personal risk.
She added that the custodians’ contract extension in January did not include a percentage raise. Instead, the extension guaranteed a one-time bonus of $1,500 based on number of hours worked prior to the pandemic and an additional smaller bonus for those who worked on campus during the pandemic.
“We are the ones that make sure everybody is coming in and living healthy and clean and safe, so now is the time for them to step up and give us what we deserve,” Fernandes said.
Speaking after Fernandes, security guard Aryt Alasti said that 32BJ workers need wage increases that match or exceed current inflation rates.
“I hope that the leadership of Harvard responsible for, in the end, making these decisions about financial allotments will rethink the morality of having contract negotiations take place where you do not, at the very least, get a wage increase that is equivalent to inflation,” he said.
State Representative Michael L. Connolly, who also spoke at the rally, noted that Harvard’s endowment increased $11.6 billion during the previous fiscal year, calling Harvard’s raise proposal as alleged by the union “unconscionable.”
“I just have to say that for the record, it is unconscionable to turn to you all to make this university run and to suggest a 2.2 percent raise is sufficient,” he said. “We need significant raises, good contracts, real provisions for justice.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.
Separately, more than 375 Harvard graduate students, employees, and undergraduates signed a letter of support for 32BJ workers addressed to University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Office of Labor and Employee Relations Director Paul R. Curran.
The Labor and Employment Action Project, a Law School advocacy group, along with the Student Labor Action Movement, a Phillips Brooks House Association organization, also encouraged students to call Bacow on Tuesday, circulating a script from LEAP.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, McGovern said Harvard should “set an example” for how to treat essential workers.
“Harvard has an opportunity to be a true leader in the fight for fair wages,” he wrote. “They have the budget to set an example and pay their essential workers what they deserve. They need to step up.”
—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.
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