When I tell folks I’m in a union and am incredibly proud to be, I am usually met with:
“You’re in a union? How are you in a union? You have a cushy academic job, right? I thought unions were for blue collar workers and maybe adjuncts sometimes.”
And you know, that’s what I thought unions were for for many, many years. I was indifferent about them, really, until I started living the grad student and adjunct instructor life and realized that I was a member of a group that had very little say in changes made to compensation and, most importantly health care.
In the middle of my graduate work, Washington University made drastic changes to our health insurance plans, to “comply with the Affordable Care Act”. Strangely, this compliance included doing away with nearly all prescription coverage. All of a sudden I was paying $350 out of pocket each month for my medications. Because I was not on campus at the time (on fellowship in New York), I could not get free birth control from the student health center, and they would not mail it to me. So I had to pay full retail price for that, in addition to other medicines. And there was nothing I could do about it, other than write letters to the Provost and be as vocal as possible about it with my department and the greater university community. Eventually, they changed and prescription coverage was reinstated the next year.
My job at Harvard is classified as a union job, part of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. I pay dues every month, have voting rights, and in this last year, I have been made profoundly aware of how important the union is for me. Without it, many of our healthcare benefits would have been stripped away from us this year.
Harvard met with massive criticism in late 2014 over the “restructuring” of health benefits for faculty and non-union employees (see here and here), where, essentially, no one would know how much it would cost each time going to the doctor. Policy makers thought of it as a way to cut costs by having people shop around for better prices on things like MRIs or reducing unnecessary doctor’s visits. The effect it did have was discouraging people from going to the doctor at all and not getting the care they needed until, perhaps, the problem became even worse and required more serious intervention.
Those of us in the union have a separate contract, and the University was pushing to have us take the same plans. But as folks earning the lower ends of the pay scale, we really, really can’t afford to take those chances in our health care. A faculty member making six figures is better able to afford those unknown costs, but a staff member is not.
Negotiations were supposed to be completed in October, but they only recently reached an agreement, and…WE WON. We are keeping our plans, and two days ago we voted on accepting the new contract. This will also ensure our annual cost of living raises, and we will finally all get the back pay we are owed for the raises, going back to October when our previous contract expired.
I must say Harvard does have a very generous benefits package, and I could not be happier with it. They do take care of their employees very well, but in moments like this when Universities are trying to cut costs, health care tends to go on the chopping block, and this is a dangerous direction to go.
I love my job, I am grateful for the HUCTW bargaining unit, and in this case, Harvard did the right thing.