Joie Gelband wasn’t supposed to have a career as a union organizer. In 1985, the recent college graduate “tagged along” with friends to Boston and took a job at the Harvard Divinity School as a placeholder until graduate school.
“My only goal at that point was to become a famous feminist theologian,” she said with a knowing smile. “That was my lofty ambition.” So when a co-worker approached her and invited her to a meeting about forming a union, Gelband passed.
“I said — and I’m embarrassed to admit this — ‘I’m above that,’ ” she recalled. “I just hadn’t thought of the world of workers beyond my friends and I trying to get our first jobs.”
That attitude didn’t last long. Her colleague persisted, and within a year of begrudgingly attending her first meeting, Gelband had quit her job to work on union activities full time.
“I got very interested in the basic philosophy of this organizing drive,” she said. The nascent Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), which finally formed after a worker vote in 1988, wasn’t just demanding more overtime pay or better hours, she said. “We were organizing around [the idea of] workers having a voice, and being in the room when decisions are made.”
That mission has guided Gelband’s work over the past quarter-century. She may not be a world-renowned feminist scholar, but she has certainly changed women’s (and men’s) lives as an HUCTW organizer.
After nearly two decades working as an organizer under the auspices of the union’s national affiliate, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Gelband came back on board as a Harvard employee in 2004.
She now co-manages HUCTW’s Work Security Program, a partnership between the University and the union that helps to place laid-off workers in new positions around Harvard. Gelband trains case managers to work with the newly unemployed, coordinates with human resources and hiring managers, and serves as an advocate.
“Harvard is an enormous and dynamic institution, and changes are going to happen all the time,” she said. Union jobs are especially susceptible to turnover. As grants expire, and as departments in the University expand and contract, support positions are frequently created, phased out, and reshuffled.
“It saves the University to hire an experienced insider, and it’s the right thing to do for someone who’s facing job loss,” Gelband said.
Gelband’s dedication to the program hasn’t gone unnoticed by the workers she has helped. Laverne Martinez became one of those people in July 2009, when Gelband helped her to land a job at the Office of Sponsored Programs. Gelband would call Martinez before and after every interview. She helped Martinez keep track of her many applications to provide necessary evidence of her job search to the union board. Gelband made calls on her behalf and set up informational interviews for practice.
“Every single job that I’ve applied for, she has really been there, to the point where we would communicate every single day,” Martinez said. “She puts her heart into doing it.”
Gelband also runs HUCTW’s School-to-Work Program, which places students from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in paid internships around Harvard. Gelband trains HUCTW members to be intern supervisors and teaches a weekly seminar for the students to learn about workplace skills, labor issues, and collective action.
She brings the union home, too. She and her husband, David Cort, a library assistant at Widener Library, met while working on the union campaign. Both work part-time to allow them to co-parent their two children, ages 15 and 7.
“One of us is always available to do kid-related or dog-related things,” she said — like being the “resident union lady” at her daughter’s school. Every year Gelband teaches second-graders classic picket songs, including a few HUCTW originals. They’re the same tunes Gelband has been crooning since the mid-1980s, only in a classroom instead of at a rally: “Unions, unions, unions, u-u-u-unions! Unions are a woman’s best friend!”