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The Women Who Organized Harvard

A Feminist Model of Labor Organization?

Elly Leary, a former assembler at the now-closed GM-Farmingham plant, currently works as a clerical at Boston University where she is Vice President ofUAW 2324.Jean Alonso, a retired assembler in a defense plant, is a mental health counselor working in SEIU 509’s Direct Care Workers’ Union Organizing Campaign in Massachusetts. She is completing a book on the developmental consequences of work life in the defense industry. A earlier version of this article, written by Jean Alonso, appeared in The Women’s Review of Books, October 1997.

Balloons transformed Harvard Yard on May 17, 1988, the day the “servants of the university,” as workers were originally called, voted on whether to join the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), an affiliate of AFSCME. “Ballooning” lightened the tension, but Kristine Rondeau, lead union organizer, had a grim warning for her staff: “You did a wonderful job. But we don’t have it…It’s very likely we didn’t win.”1 In fact, by a slim margin, they did have it. One of the most influential universities in the world had been outsmarted by some of its unknown employees, mostly women.

John Hoerr’s book, We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard, chronicles the fifteen-year road to the establishment of the HUCTW. Hoerr, with thirty years experience as a journalist specializing in labor issues, presents this complex and extended labor struggle in sophisticated detail. He also knows how to tell a story with style, filled with personal recollections, Harvard myths, and elegant classical allusions. Like the supportive husbands who organized themselves into the “HUCTW Ladies’ Auxiliary,” Hoerr is a real partisan of the new model of organizing he explores.

Hoerr’s story focuses on Kris Rondeau who, raised in a small Massachusetts company mill town, was delighted to land a post-college job as lab assistant at Harvard Medical School in 1976, and wished the union sympathizers there would leave her alone. “I was afraid,” she tells Hoerr. “I thought that unions were just filled with conflict, and the idea of being in one filled me with conflict” (22). The kind of campaign the Harvard organizers developed was one that could speak to and recruit women just like Kris. It has been championed as “the feminist model of organizing.”

The “Feminist” Model

The Harvard drive is fascinating because it illustrates several questions at the heart of the labor movement today. First, what happens when the “different voice” of women’s relations predominates in a major workplace struggle? HUCTW’s organizing mode, used in the past by men as well as women, is especially compatible with women’s relations. How does it conflict with current methods of contending for power? What light does it shed on labor’s struggle to rebuild organizations that empower workers? Since We Can’t Eat Prestige hit the bookshelves, Rondeau has successfully concluded another eight-year drive, this time at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The stunning 63 percent vote should caution anyone against dismissing their ideas.

Second, the Harvard contract is a model of non-adversarial relations. Are the conflicting class interests that shaped the adversarial labor relations of the last 100-plus years less important now—dwarfed by global competition or blurred in the service sector? Poll after poll indicates that workers, no matter what kind of job they do, want more say and control over what happens at work. Did the industrial relations devised by the Harvard agreement provide for this dream? Or are there pitfalls in the cooperative experiments adopted there? These are real questions for labor activists who are confronted with cooperative experiments everyday.

The drive, begun at the Harvard Medical School in 1973, has its roots in the women’s movement, which Hoerr illustrates through many anecdotes. In one, Karen Nussbaum, then a secretary at the Harvard School of Education, handed her boss a list of what women at the time ironically called “trivial concerns”—dignity in the workplace, job descriptions that precluded personal service for the boss like getting coffee, opportunities for advancement, and, most importantly, participation in decisions about how work was to be organized. In another, Leslie Sullivan, lead organizer at the Medical School, joined an alliance with faculty women, the Harvard Medical Area Women’s Group. Alliances between working class women and professional women have had an uneven history, and this one fell apart. Hoerr tells us that Sullivan came to see that “if everybody’s priorities were tossed into one big pot containing all women’s issues, the workers’ heavy proletarian demands would sink to the bottom while the professionals’ issues—floating on top like pretty sprouts and garnishes—would attract attention.” (38-9)

A 1984 National Labor Relations Board ruling in favor of Harvard (who had vigorously contested the drive) forced the campaign to go university-wide. By now Rondeau had assumed leadership (she had become an “Undisputed Leader”) and her vision of unionism was firmly stamped on the drive—one that differed significantly from the dominant model. This model, consolidated following the Second World War in the rise of business unionism, typically sends staff organizers (in the beginning mostly white men, but now increasingly women and people of color also) to a workplace to conduct a short, passionate, challenging campaign to awaken the workers to their exploitation and their smoldering desire to fight back and take the boss down. Because management’s anti-union campaigns have exploded in both their virulence and sophistication (rank-and-file activists are fired in one out of every four campaigns), there is tremendous pressure on the staff to get it all done quickly (from initial contact to the start of contract negotiations) before the boss can get the anti-union campaign off the ground. If this (often called a “blitz” where the time table is really compressed) doesn’t produce a win, staffers move on, too often leaving the in-house committee out on a limb.

At Harvard, however, not only did the campaign take fifteen years (undoubtedly an expensive effort) but it was driven by members-turned-organizers who adamantly refused to hook up with any union pushing the dominant model. (This refusal to let outsiders run the show in the traditional way created some nasty tensions and intra-union struggle between HUCTW and the UAW, District 65 and AFSCME, all of which Hoerr details). The organizers knew their constituency, and the methods they developed worked. “It’s the social thing!” complained UAW Regional Director Ted Barrett. “In the UAW we’d convene a meeting in a hall and tell people why they ought to join a union. At Harvard they’d go to someone’s house and have coffee and talk about it.” (177)

Indeed, the heart and soul of the campaign were these “one on ones.” Instead of relying on leaflets and big meetings, Harvard organizers persistently met with co-workers, usually at work or lunch. These meetings set out to establish beneath-the-surface supportive networks which sustained people through the long drive and built consensus around what organizers determined to be the principal issue: that this highly educated support work force deserved to have dignity and a place at Harvard’s table.

Rondeau was not interested in angry toe-to-toe matches with management. “I think anger is the enemy of union organizing,” she told Hoerr. “It’s the union’s responsibility to create an environment in which you can be part of a union and believe in self-representation and worker’s voice without being mean, without being aggressive, without being merely oppositional.” (128) While in our experience as organizers, ruling out anger at management is hard to imagine, at Harvard it apparently worked. Harvard certainly did mount an anti-union campaign, but HUCTW met Harvard’s anti-unionism with patience, nonviolence and preparatory sessions for the employees. Harvard, in its hubris, was fooled by this quiet networking. As Anne Taylor, Director of Harvard’s anti-union campaign, later explained:

[When Rondeau’s group split from the UAW] we thought we wouldn’t hear from the unions for years. By the time we were aware something was going on, they were unbeatable…Kris understood intuitively what the people were hungering for and nurtured it. The approach was conflict averse, a much more typical way for women. They want to be in relationships rather than putting up their dukes. (211)

The hallmark of the HUCTW “feminine model” is their union contract which is an unfettered philosophical statement for non-adversarial, “partnership” labor relations. The preamble to the first contract states that the “support staff represented by HUCTW [are] a valued and essential participant in the cooperative process” of “governing” Harvard. (227) The agreement provided for personnel problem-solving through joint committees of union and management (Local Problem Solving Teams), throwing out the bedrock of workers’ protection in most contracts—the grievance and arbitration procedures and job specifications. It emphasized self-representation in disputes, recognizing the abilities of the members and challenging them to develop these. By all accounts this process has been successful and empowering.

The innovative structures included Joint Councils at departmental levels for participation in policy-making, led by a university-wide “UJC.” While these arrangements and HUCTW’s practice of ongoing organizing of members resulted in an impressive 10 percent of members involved and active (compared to 1 or 2 percent in most unions), the Joint Councils are not without problems. And these problems reveal the contradictory nature of non-adversarial relations. The contract contained no language that would give the joint policy-making bodies the power to negotiate and enforce binding changes. They remained consultative. In practice this means that workers are totally dependent on management’s “goodwill” to get things done. As HUCTW’s fight over health care coverage for part-time workers demonstrated, the only decisions that get implemented are those that management is willing to do in the first place. Another serious problem is that the UJC left intact the tradition of departmental decision-making autonomy. “If management in some units chose not to engage in ‘joint discussion’,” Hoerr comments, “the workers would have no voice.” (227) This too has come about, as the new administration of Rudenstein has left it up to departmental deans whether to participate in the JCs. Most have opted out of the time-consuming policy discussions with clerical workers. “We’ve been unsuccessful in finding partners in a decentralized university,…[but] we won’t stop trying,” Rondeau told Hoerr. (262)

Nor should the particularities of the Harvard situation be overlooked. Hoerr is right to emphasize that the innovative contract was equally a product of Harvard’s President Derek Bok and Professors Emeriti John Dunlop and James Healy. All three had distinguished academic careers in labor relations, principally selling unions to corporate America. All three were very interested in non-adversarial experiments. One could argue that the Harvard trio saw in HUCTW’s non-adversarial approach a chance to develop a sophisticated model of union containment based on giving the illusion of power sharing (by letting workers have input in narrow operational issues), but keeping off-limits the University’s most vital matters—its $11 billion endowment and decisions on capital expenditures.

Other questions and comments occur to us which were not part of the analysis of We Can’t Eat Prestige.

It is telling and ironic that both Hoerr and HUCTW leaders see their “feminist” model as breaking new ground. Indeed it was doing so in that period. But it had historic precedents. One of the consequences of labor’s purging of the left in the 1950s, and the subsequent “devil’s pact” with capital, was that by the early 1980s labor leaders like the UAW’s Ted Barrett were completely out of touch with labor history as well as with the social movements of their own period, in this case the women’s movement.

The history of earlier organizing in the auto industry (from the teens to the Second World War) is a virtual manual on one-on-one organizing like HUCTW’s. Open talk on the shop floor about unions was a sure recipe for getting fired and blacklisted. Even small meetings in someone’s basement with the shades drawn and the lights off were risky since company spies were everywhere. Ten years of grassroots basebuilding, which like HUCTW’s created beneath-the-surface networks that painfully accumulated a “mass” and made connections between employees in different sections of a workplace, paid off in the strength to carry off the famous Flint sit-down. Many of us who have spent time in auto and other basic industry can attest that if the “blitz” method had been tried in the 1930s, we’d still be waiting for unionization. Those of us currently organizing in human services have also had little luck with the “blitz” and more with slower network building.

It is worth noting that there appears to be little evidence that the HUCTW “feminist model” has been taken outside the workplace and brought back to the women’s movement which desperately needs to make itself relevant to nonprofessional working women.

HUCTW’s emphasis on dignity and self-representation without the benefit of a grievance procedure (or even contracts) also had precedents. The IWW didn’t believe in contracts at all. The one page “contract” that ended the Flint sit-down had nothing about wages or working conditions. Its sole focus was dignity and self-representation—workers had a right to join a union and the boss had to deal with the collective voice of the employees. Before the union movement limited rank-and-file participation to complex, anger-channelling grievance procedures (consolidated by 1948) workers for years “problem-solved” by confronting their boss in on-the-spot meetings. Militant rank-and-filers choose this avenue now, ignoring the union rules. The group making the most headway in organizing the South, the Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), confronts the boss in this way even when they have not yet won union recognition, often summoning community support in these confrontations. They also accept the need for lengthy campaigns, responding to this current necessity by devising a new form—“non-majority unionism” in which you act like a union (newsletters, paying dues, campaigns, and settling members’ problems) even before the majority has voted and a contract is in place. Like the Black Workers for Justice, HUCTW is distinguished by their ability to reframe issues and methods, and to construct a culture that emphasizes democratic process and self-representation.

Maintaining democratic process and union strength in the face of divisions of opinion, individualism and corporate attacks is not easy. HUCTW has tried something different with its union structure. There are no regular legislative meetings of the entire membership. Instead, networks of volunteer committees, an invitation-only kitchen cabinet and district meetings discuss and plan union policy and activities. These bodies make recommendations to the elected Executive Board, which sifts through the input before making final decisions. While Hoerr is right to underscore HUCTW’s commitment to process, unfortunately he does not explore the downside of the union’s informal processes. By not having regular legislative meetings of the entire membership, HUCTW not only deprives itself of building a sense of the collective, but can effectively squash “other” voices, as some HUCTW members have charged.

Finally, there is the question of non-adversarial relations, a major question for unions both traditional and nontraditional. The Harvard model is still promoted in some circles, particularly in the service sector, as the most advanced form of labor relations. Other campaigns sometimes try to win management neutrality before organizing the rank and file by dangling the carrot of non-adversarialism. Both Hoerr and Rondeau were adherents of the “success” of jointness programs in the automobile industry.(253) But an important body of literature detailing these workers’ experiences testifies that in reality these programs are disingenuous agreements which are carefully crafted instruments to disarm and dismantle the union while engaging in a good old-fashioned speed-up. Many of us organizers face management-created “joint” bodies that give workers only meaningless advisory capacity and are intended to obviate the need for unions. Management’s enthusiasm for such partnership schemes is clear in their unsuccessful attempt to convince Congress to pass the TEAM Act.

For too long the labor movement has ignored issues of human rights, development, and empowerment at work—the bread and roses demands for quality of life for workers. For too long, also, it has side-stepped the ultimate question: can the balance of power between the working class and capital be changed without directly challenging capitalism, particularly its market-driven neoliberalism and the essential role that racism and gender inequality play in its economy? We must deal with these questions, and with the need to reform union structures to address capitalism’s current strategy for restructuring—decentralization of its operations but concentration of its power at the core.

As the labor movement struggles to figure out what shape should rise from its ashes, guidance is urgently needed from real data about workers’ campaigns and experiences. In the face of these challenges, We Can’t Eat Prestige is essential reading. It’s food for thought and the soul!


  1. John Hoerr, We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997) 256pp., $29.95 cloth.
1997, Volume 49, Issue 07 (December)
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