I first met Steve McCombe when I was
      accosted by this gruff, burly security
      guard, who amiably chastised me for
      riding my bicycle through Harvard Yard.
      Later I learned that he was the founder
      and president of the Harvard University
      security workers’ union.

Steve had long displayed a strong-willed, ethical, team-minded character.  Weighing just three pounds at birth, he grew up to play varsity football throughout high school and went on to serve as a seaman in the U.S. Navy.  In 1976 he began working as a guard at a Boston-area contract security agency (the predecessor of Allied Security), where he was promoted to the positions of Road Supervisor and Internal Investigator.

During his seventh year, the agency assigned him to Harvard’s Longwood campus.  He dedicated himself to helping the medical school's harried students and staff.  The university reciprocated by hiring him as a directly employed Harvard University Security Guard.

Steve was recognized as well for his dedication to helping his fellow guards.  In 1990, they elected him to serve as the Harvard University shop steward of Local 254 of the Service Employees International Union.

But the College had already begun phasing out its SEIU-represented security guards unit, preferring to rely on contract security vendors instead.  Steve grew increasingly disenchanted with the management of the local, and he attempted to reorganize Harvard’s security workers into an independent Harvard-based union.

A major personal triumph came in 1996 when Steve and two trusted associates won a National Labor Relations Board decision allowing them to unite Harvard University’s security, parking, and museum guards in a single, autonomous union: HUSPMGU.


       Steve fought for the underdog and
       he fought to the end; and he usually
       came out on top.      
—Jackie McCombe

Steve did feel uncomfortable about pirating away the members of his old union.  But five years later the wisdom of his actions became evident, when the president Local 254 was arrested and it was placed in federal trusteeship and subsequently reorganized as SEIU Local 615.

Steve retired for medical reasons in Sept. 2003.  His closest associate, Howie Reid, became the first black (acting) leader of a Harvard service workers’ union.

Howie’s tragic death in Jan. 2004 left the union with unseasoned leadership.  And the contract agencies, no longer facing intensive competition and scrutiny from the union, sent their most effective workers elsewhere.

Steve continued pointing out the problems associated with the University’s reliance on temporary guards.  But he was frustrated by the media’s lack of interest in the subject—even after the underground construction site at the Biological Laboratories went up in smoke last spring.  The University had given its temporary security personnel so little training that they could not help the city’s firefighting units find the right entrance.  And the whole site was destroyed.

        Harvard personnel on scene but did
        not know where entrances were to
        construction site.  Found entrance on
        the Bravo side but heavy black smoke
        coming from entrance.  [Fire] cos.
        could not descend stairs.  Requested
        Harvard call in … Harvard personnel
        familiar with bldg.
            —Cambridge Fire Dept., 2005

Steve died unexpectedly three weeks ago at age 59.  He was survived by his wife, Jacqueline, 57; his son Sean, 29; and his grandson, Hayden Stephen McCombe, 1 week.

The union he founded continues to flourish.  Among the service workers’ unions at Harvard, his is the only one whose membership has grown since the Harvard Living Wage Campaign of spring 2001.
                                     —J. Herms, Oct. 12, 2005

Stephen McCombe