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Harvard's new white-collar union part of US campus trend

First it was Columbia. Then Yale, five years ago. Now another Ivy League school is wearing a prominent union label. By a margin of but 44 ballots, some 3,400 librarians, laboratory assistants, and other support staff members at Harvard University voted to unionize last week.

Harvard is still reviewing ``numerous'' complaints of improper behavior on the part of union organizers, says a university spokeswoman, and will decide by May 24 whether to file a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

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Barring such a challenge, the new Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers is bound to be certified.

Union organizer Kristine Rondeau planned to begin today the task of selecting a negotiation team and putting together a contract proposal.

The victory, if not successfully challenged, is widely seen as an important one for organized labor in the United States, which has lost membership in the last few years. But, says an academic who has been tracking union efforts to organize clerical workers, the victory is not as startling or unprecedented as it seems.

On the union front, clerical organizing is ``where the action is right now,'' says University of Vermont Prof. Richard Hurd. Starting in the mid to late 1970s, unions targeted white-collar workers. Harvard's was a typical campaign, he says: It took a long time - more than a decade, and ``we organized one employee at a time,'' Ms. Rondeau says.

The leadership came from inside the university (Rondeau is a former Harvard employee). The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is the parent union. AFSCME provided money for salaries and other expenses.

Efforts to unionize white-collar workers have had a ``phenomenal'' success rate in recent years, says Dr. Hurd. His 1986 survey of four-year colleges in the Northeast found that of those campuses that experienced union campaigns from 1970 to 1986, 70 percent of them had clerical unions. (Not all succeeded the first time, he notes.)

A survey of large public-sector and private universities showed similar results.

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Hurd puts forward several reasons for such success:

Accessibility. In most businesses, outsiders can't get beyond the receptionist. But at a university, ``anyone can come in and talk to a secretary,'' he says.

Pay. University salaries are generally poor, making a union more attractive.

Attitudes. The ``classical liberal'' ideals of free speech, open-mindedness, and fair play are another open door to unions on campuses. A private corporation can decide to fire an employee involved in union organizing and take the consequences. University administrations shy away from such hard-hitting tactics.

Despite union protests to the contrary, Harvard's campaign against the union constituted ``limited employer opposition,'' says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Kochan.

Most employers resist unionization much more aggressively, he says.

Ironically, the more prestigious the university, the higher the success of a union drive, Hurd concluded. The prestige of a university is an incentive to employment there. But when workers find themselves ``surrounded by people getting an awful lot of ego gratification,'' they are frustrated at not to sharing in it, he suggests.

``The union gives them an opportunity to feel proud,'' Hurd says.

Pro-union Harvard employees who were interviewed stressed their pride in the university and said that they felt their ``yes'' votes would help make it a better place to work. ``It's not anti-Harvard to be pro-union'' was one union slogan. Another, borrowed from the Yale effort, was, ``You can't eat prestige.''

The unantagonistic attitude embodied in the first slogan is distinctive, and a ``very, very important lesson'' for union organizers, says MIT's Dr. Kochan.

The new union will not be Harvard university's first - there are seven others. What makes this one different, says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California at San Diego, is the fact that it's new, it's big (more than twice the size of the other unions combined), and its members are ``more critically placed,'' in his opinion.

Anne Taylor, assistant to Harvard's vice-president for finance, ran the university's campaign against the union. She characterized the drive as ``very emotional and very rhetorical.

``I give 'em credit for it,'' she says of the union vote. The university has worked well with unions before, she says, and ``if the election itself was fair, then we'll live with that decision.''

In a May 23 article on a vote to form a clerical union at Harvard University, the school affiliation of Richard Hurd was misstated. Dr. Hurd is a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire.

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