Dining workers draw the line at Harvard

October 10, 2016

Keith Rosenthal, a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, reports from the picket lines of a strike by the university's dining service workers.

HUNDREDS OF dining service workers at Harvard University began walking picket lines on October 5--the first day of what remains an open-ended strike as this article was being written. The workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 26, voted in late September by a 97 percent margin in favor of a strike, with four-fifths of members casting ballots.

In a press release, UNITE HERE Local 26 lead negotiator Michael Kramer wrote, "Workers are demanding two simple things from the university administration: the ability to earn at least $35,000 a year and a health insurance program that does not shift costs onto those who can least afford it."

The current strike marks the first time in over 30 years that Harvard workers have walked off the job.

With the better part of a week on strike behind them, the workers' overall mood was resilient and spirited, even as frustrations grow about the arrogant stubbornness of Harvard administration negotiators.

The union remains committed to maintaining the strike until Harvard concedes. Dozens of picket lines were kept up all day long across the university's sprawling campus, and they continued over the weekend and during the Columbus Day holiday on Monday.

UNITE HERE Local 26 members on the march at Harvard University
UNITE HERE Local 26 members on the march at Harvard University (Keith Rosenthal | SW)

The picket lines are without a doubt the most diverse and democratic manifestation of genuine community to be found at this elite Ivy League school. Conversations and chants in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole bubble up from among picketers at any given moment. Workers approaching their late 60s are sandwiched between those in their 20s, and plenty of the union members are pushing baby strollers.

For Clinton Ross, who was worked at a Harvard dining room for five years, this was one of the most unexpected and welcome surprises of the strike. "I have never in my life been on strike before, and I have to admit that I did not expect this whole thing to be so big," Ross said. "I thought people wouldn't step up, but so many have. The union has been central to that. To be united out here with so many other workers is truly exciting."

Part-time dining worker Maria Audon agrees. Despite the prospect of going without a paycheck from Harvard for the duration of the strike--and with $900 in hospital bills that weren't covered by Harvard health insurance hanging over her head--she insists that she feels "very positive and optimistic" about the strike. "We are united, we are many, and we are necessary," Audon says.

ASIDE FROM the Harvard administration itself, the strike has faced opposition from the usual quarters. Cambridge police have attempted to prevent picketers from using megaphones to project their chants. The Boston Globe published craven pieces of pro-Harvard propaganda, with headlines such as, "Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 Percent. It's not."

But to hear Anabela Pappas tell it, a battle against the 1 Percent is precisely what the strike is about. Pappas, who has worked in dining services at Harvard for 30-plus years, addressed a large rally of her striking co-workers in Harvard Yard on the first day of the strike.

"All the money they have, and they still want to squeeze every bit out of us," Pappas said of Harvard administrators. "You greedy people. You caused this, not us. We didn't want to be here."

According to Pappas, dining service workers are only employed by Harvard for eight months out of the year. The workers are laid off during the summer months, during which time they not only receive no income from the university, but are cut off from health insurance coverage. Owing to their ambiguous employment status, many workers aren't able to receive unemployment assistance during these months. Those workers who do find other jobs during this interim period usually work for much lower pay.

"Some of us actually go hungry during these months," Pappas says, highlighting the irony of food workers at the richest university in the world having to struggle to provide adequate nourishment for their families.

And Harvard isn't merely rich--It's astronomically rich.

Harvard currently boasts an endowment worth approximately $35 billion, a sum larger than the economies of half of the world's countries. To put that in perspective in the context of the strike, the minimum annual income being demanded by workers is one-millionth of Harvard's total endowment.

According to the Living Wage Calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an annual income of $35,000 would put certain groups of workers just barely above the official federal poverty line--and most workers short of obtaining an actual living wage to support a family.

IN THIS light, the refusal of the Harvard administration to meet the workers' arguably overly modest demands is all the more appalling.

Harvard President Drew Faust claims to be "very proud" of the health benefits and compensation that Harvard is offering the dining service workers. Such a statement is preposterous coming from someone who draws an annual income of $1 million from Harvard's coffers.

Even if Harvard met every single one of the striking workers' demands, the average compensation of the dining workers would still be less than one-twentieth of Faust's!

Despite the blatant unfairness and arrogance displayed by Harvard's rulers, the outcome of the strike is far from assured.

For one thing, the very fact that strikes are such an exception at Harvard raises the stakes even higher, as other sectors of workers across the university and throughout Boston will be carefully watching the effectiveness of the dining workers' strategy.

As part of its propaganda campaign directed against the dining service workers, Harvard has pointed out that the union I'm in--the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW)--recently agreed to a contract containing a very similar health care proposal to the one the UNITE HERE members are protesting.

Such propaganda is partially undercut by the fact that HUCTW has come out in full support of the dining workers' strike, including their rejection of the university's proposed health plan.

But it also raises the possibility that if the dining service workers' strike is victorious, HUCTW and other campus unions may feel emboldened to follow the their lead in demanding an even greater and more equitable distribution of the enormous wealth we generate for Harvard.

THIS IS why solidarity between all workers at Harvard and beyond will be crucial in determining the outcome of the strike and its aftermath. Several campus unions, including HUCTW and SEIU 32BJ, which represents janitors and security guards, have sent messages to their entire membership encouraging support for the strike. Graduate students currently engaged in a unionization campaign have also declared their solidarity.

Organized student support, which at this point appears to be forthcoming, is also important, especially because the university intends to keep the majority of dining halls open during the course of the strike.

The question that will take on increased importance as the strike goes on for days and possibly weeks is how to turn passive expressions of support into active mobilizations of solidarity.

I know there are fellow HUCTW members who are willing and eager to do everything, up to and including taking job actions themselves alongside of the dining workers. HUCTW has a total membership of 5,000 workers. If even a portion of that number could be organized into rotating contingents of workers who spend time on the picket line, it would have an impact.

One immediate step is for all workers and labor organizations to mobilize for the solidarity rally called for Thursday, October 13, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Cambridge Common. The rally, sponsored by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, Greater Boston Labor Council and Metro Boston Building Trades Council, is intended to "send a message to Harvard that the Massachusetts labor movement stands with Harvard workers."

The stakes in this struggle are high. The 1 Percent who rule over a Harvard where workers aren't confident to fight in the face of yawning inequality don't want the precedent established that a strike is a legitimate and effective instrument in the hands of its workers.

It should be the task of all Harvard workers and their supporters to see to it that this is exactly what comes of the dining service workers' strike. As striker Brione Merchant said:

This strike is about rejecting the ability of those at the top of this establishment to unilaterally dictate to us what our worth and importance is. They figure that they don't need to pay us that much because they think we're not that important. They say that we are nothing without them. Actually, it's the other way around. We do the feeding, cleaning, repairing and maintenance that keeps this place running.

We're fighting for our fair worth, for living wages. We know the gap between the rich and poor is growing all over the country. The minimum wage hasn't really increased in decades. The Republican idea of wealth "trickling down" from the rich to the poor is a myth.

The only way that the level of all workers can be raised is when some of them finally decide to fight back and win more, which can give leverage to other workers who can then say, "We should get more, too."

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