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Relational organizing at Harvard
by Peter Hall-Jones

In building a union from the ground up, technical and clerical workers at Harvard University may just have found the missing link between the organizing model and the partnership model. The approach these took, and the results they achieved, also point to a solution to what is generally referred to as "the representation gap": the difference between the number of people who support unionism, and would like to join a union, and those who actually do.

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According to recent research in the USA by Harvard economics professor Richard B Freeman: "...if workers were provided with the union representation they desired in 2005, then the unionization rate would be about 58% — almost eight times higher than the actual rate of 7.4%."(1)

For a long time there has been this huge "representation gap" in the USA. Far, far more workers want to join unions than actually do. In fact, as Freeman shows, this gap is now the largest it has ever been. Popular support for unions in the USA has seldom, in the country's entire history, been as strong as it is today. The "union-busting" industry(2) is no doubt a major factor in this. Declining unionisation rates are being artificially created by interference, bullying and threats. It has become "a risk, rather than a right, to join a labor union."(3). The natural response of many unions has been to become more aggressive, and to rail ever more loudly against the employers' abuse of power. In the USA the closed, raised fist is a core image in many union web sites. This, of course, feeds back into an industry which reaps millions out of exploiting management's fears.

However this is not a story about vicious circles. Nor is it about failures in democracy. It is quite the opposite. And in looking at what follows, consider the two union models of organizing and partnership. Does this story point to a missing link?

harvardThe story begins at the other end of the pendulum's swing, at a time when popular support for trade unionism was at its lowest-ever ebb in the USA(1). And it takes place right in the beating heart of America's white collar establishment: Harvard University.

The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) was a self-organized union. It has since joined AFSCME, but it was initiated by Harvard employees themselves, rather than by any outside union on a recruitment drive. As their web site proudly proclaims: "Those roots remain crucial to the functioning and the philosophy of our Union to this day. The Union is its members, not an external staff of lawyers or labor experts. Union leadership and involvement comes from members (and former members) themselves. Union members negotiate our contracts, and Union members work with management to address issues of policy and to improve the working environment."

Kris RondeauLead organizer Kris Rondeau, formerly a lab assistant, explains:
"For my friends and me... this was simply a natural way to be ourselves and try to form a union. The labor relations ideas of the HUCTW flowed from the culture we had built while organizing these places. Our approach was based on establishing relationships and common values, rather than focusing solely on “issues”.
To be sure, if we did not have profound concerns and problematic issues, we would not need a union at all. But we do. We are just like everybody else; we need to change work."

The obvious thing to do would have been to generate a campaign around pay rates. But what the workers soon realised, as they spoke among each other about forming a union, was that most of them saw the university as a reasonable employer. Anger was never going to work as a starting point.

As Michael Jacoby Brown puts it: "The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers demanded "dignity, democracy and a dental plan". Harvard University, a wealthy institution, gave the employees a dental plan. If the union had only wanted this, their "issue" might have been solved. But their goals also included "dignity and democracy" - things which Harvard University could not "give" as easily - and so the union still had a clear purpose and a lot of work in front of them.(4)

They have stuck to this position ever since. As the union gathered support, management promoted a strong anti-union campaign. The union refused to respond with the typical anti-management sloganeering. Instead, they declared: "It is not anti-Harvard to be pro-union". And they concentrated on building intra-relationships within the membership. This meant having innumerable one-to-one meetings, rather than (or as well as) the traditional one-to-many union rallies.

In reviewing John Hoerr's excellent book(5) about this struggle, Professor Ruth Milkman says: "The real achievement of the organizing effort was to persuade (the workers that) a union would improve the situation by giving them a greater voice and by upgrading the quality of human relations in their workplace. Economic benefits were welcomed too, but this was not the main impetus for unionization. HUCTW eschewed the militant, confrontational style which is so often associated with organized labor."(6)

victoryThere was anything "soft" about their struggle. To think that would be to make make a mistake akin to confusing friendliness with weakness. It took the workers 15 hard years, and countless battles in and out of courts, with opposition from every imaginable quarter, before they finally won. But they did win. And in 1989 the 3,500 workers who had built the union negotiated their first contract.

The real victory was not the contract, but the fact that they had held on to their approach and their principles all throughout the struggle. The first article of the contract stated that the parties would: "build a framework for greater employee participation at Harvard... in the spirit of trust and cooperation to reach consensus."

As Rondeau says: "I think anger is the enemy of union organizing... 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 workers' voice without being mean, without being aggressive, without being merely oppositional... If we just superimpose a union on the boss's culture, generally speaking, we get a sick union. We have to sweep away some of the bosses' values first and bring our better values into the workplace". (7)

  Problem solving the HUCTW way

At Harvard a problem-solving process replaces the traditional grievance procedure, which often centres around antagonism, inflexibility, and litigious paperwork to determine if contract violations have occurred.

The process is about people working out differences; creating real progress, mutually crafted solutions, and peace. The problem solvers are members of the Harvard community who are appointed, trained, and supported by the university and the union.

The union has found it much more effective to approach problems in a collaborative way, rather than an adversarial way. Since disagreements arise, problem-solving is designed so that the people involved can work jointly through disagreements and solve the problem, while maintaining professionalism and respect for each other. Problems are often solved at the most local and informal level, between individual members and supervisors/managers. A union representative and a local Human Resources officer can be helpful at that stage and this results in real workable solutions based on the knowledge of those not too far from the situation.

There will still be times when issues can't be resolved this way. They can be referred next to the Regional Problem Solving Team (RPST). The team has equal numbers of union members and managers. Members are in contact regularly, poised to help when contacted.

When an individual problem is forwarded to them by the University Problem Solving Team, after the person seeking assistance contacts the HUCTW office for help at that level, a union-management pair is selected. Together the pair will interview relevant parties and review pertinent documents. The pair will work with the parties to develop a resolution that improves the situation and is acceptable to everyone involved.

Closure requires some flexibility on both sides. The process should normally take no more than six weeks.

Ordinarily, the mediative process of joint problem-solving at the Regional level brings about resolution. If a mutually agreeable outcome is not reached, the union member may request that the case go to the next step, the University Problem Solving Team (UPST). This request should be make within ten days from the end of RPST involvement.

The UPST is composed of equal numbers of union leaders and University administrators or HR professionals. The team works in the same fashion as the Regional Team. The same six week time frame applies at this level. The UPST also monitors problem-solving activity campus-wide, and offers training and assistance to the broader problem-solving community.

RPST and UPST resolutions to which all parties have agreed are binding; participants are expected to live up to their end of the bargain. Problem-solving solutions are not legally precedent-setting, although we try to make sure our community learns from its experiences and re-uses good solutions.

If resolution is not reached at the UPST level, the next and last step of the negotiated problem-solving process is Mediation to Conclusion. The HUCTW Executive Board can refer a union member's case to a mediator jointly selected by the union and the University. The mediator will make recommendations for the resolution of the problem and, if a consensus is still not reached, will make a final binding decision about the outcome.

So how well did the strategy - sometimes referred to as "relational organizing" - work for the members? Since the union's establishment in 1988 they have won a 77% increase in members' wages. Nobody has been fired. From 1989 to 2006 their membership increased by 37%, while overall US figures fell by 4.4%. And most stunning of all, is that the lowest union membership density in each of the five locals where the approach is now applied is 94%. That's right - 94% is the lowest!

bouquetBetween them, these workers have created: "...a vibrant union that can take care of itself", helping to facilitate similar victories at the Universities of Minnesota and Illinois and UMASS Medical Center and School, as well as seeding unions in the city of Cambridge, and initiating related projects elsewhere.

By any traditional union measures the HUCTW has been extremely successful. But perhaps by their own measures there have been disappointments. Dignity and democracy are still to be won, and decision-making is still not properly shared. Some feel the joint committees which were established have: "a reasonable degree of influence, but no authority". Rondeau speaks diplomatically when she says: "we've been unsuccessful in finding partners in a decentralized university. It would be better if people at the top embraced these concepts..."

not listeningIndeed, Harvard managers have little experience with anything like "partnership". Mediator James Healy describes them with equal diplomacy: "I don't think they have enough awareness of what goes on in the world to realize what an extraordinary value they have in a relationship like this."(8)

HUCTW Director Bill Jaeger says: " Employee involvement is the defining aspiration of our local union... Relieving the economic burden, while it is very important, doesn't ever give a member of the union the feeling of progress in her soul and real improvement in her life, of having really gained something, in the same way that a rich, interesting successful participation in some sort of process does where power is shared in a new way."(9)

At varying levels, union members are now pushing for a conception of work as belonging to both the worker and the employer, not just the employer. This is radical stuff, despite the friendly and constructive spirit which has produced it. And if we consider this short case study, and then return to Harvard Professor Richard B. Freeman's research, something interesting happens: the riddle of the representation gap in the USA starts to make sense.

What Workers Want
In 1999 Freeman was involved in the most extensive workplace survey in the USA since the 1970’s. It led to a highly recommended book , which has just been re-published, called What Workers Want(10).  In it Freeman and co-author Joel Rogers report that nearly 90% of workers want some form of independent employee organization in their workplace. Most support the formation of labor-management committees, to which they would elect representatives to run the organization and settle conflicts.

Research three years earlier had shown that workers want pay that is more FAIR, rather than just higher pay. Job satisfaction depends not on absolute pay, but on pay relative to others of the same education and job qualification.(11) Again, the HUCTW's approach struck the right note.

Management experts David Sirota, Louis Mischkind and Michael Meltzer have surveyed over four million workers in 89 countries over 30 years, and in 2005 they reported that the vast majority of employees desire: equity, achievement and camaraderie. (12)

In other words, the model which the HUCTW has consistently worked towards fits very squarely with "what workers want". This is what you might expect, when a union is built from the ground up, by the workers themselves.

happy and sadThere may well be another lesson here for unions who try to organize non-union sites by running an issues-based campaign. It is a well known paradox: the traditional organizing approach divides workers at the same time as uniting them. Some are strongly supportive of the chosen issues, others are lukewarm, still others feel cynical, threatened or alienated. The union may well sign up a good percentage of the workplace, but in doing so they may have lost the real fight from the beginning. The workforce is now divided into union/non-union camps, with the latter forced from that day on to defend their position. Thus, any claim to a genuinely representative workers' voice will find itself disputed among the workers themselves - a situation that employers can, from that day on, aggravate and exploit.

The representation gap has just established another beachhead.



arrows If either you or your union has a success story like this which you would like to share with others, please contact We would be happy to write it up for you, given the facts of the matter and a quote or two.



1) Do Workers Still Want Unions? More then Ever by Richard B. Freeman, at

2) See

3) Tom Kochan, co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaking before the House of Representatives in March 2007. Click here.

4) Building Powerful Community Organisations by Michael Jacoby Brown, Long Haul Press 2006. Click here.

5) We Can't Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard by John Hoerr, Temple University Press 1997

6) We Can't Eat Prestige reviewed in Labor History, February 1999 by Ruth Milkman

7) From John Hoerr's book (see 5 above)

8) Quoted by Susan Eaton in her essay: The Customer is Always Interesting:Unionized Harvard Clericals Renegotiate Work Relationships, available here.

9) ibid

10) What Workers Want, by Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press 1999 and republished with updates in 2006. Freeman is from Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Joel Rogers is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. See, and also click here.

11) Satisfaction and comparison income, Journal of Public Economics, 61, p359-381, AE Clark and A Oswald 1996

12) The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want, by David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer, Wharton School Publishing 2005


See also:

Relational Organizing - a New Unionism hololog, 2007, available here.

What’s a Good Job? The Importance of Employment Relationships, by Graham Lowe and Grant Schellenberg  Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc., 2001

People Power, London School of Economics Journal Centre Piece, Professor Michael West and Malcolm Patterson of the Institute of Work Psychology, 1998.

Towards an Economy of Well-Being, American Psychological Society Journal 2004, available here:

Disparate Measures in the Workplace… Quantifying Overall Job Satisfaction, by Professor Michael Rose, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, and Work and Employment Research Centre, University of Bath (paper presented at the 2001 British Household Panel Survey Research Conference, 5-7 July 2001, Colchester, UK). Available here:



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