Harvard dining workers claim a victory

November 1, 2016

Dining workers at Harvard stayed strong and won their fight for a fair contract, reports Keith Rosenthal, a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.

A HISTORIC 22-day strike by 750 dining services workers at Harvard University ended October 26 with an agreement that workers consider to be a resounding victory.

The members of UNITE HERE Local 26 voted 583 to 1 in favor of a five-year contract that Local 26 President Brian Lang said "achieved all of our goals, without exception" in a speech to a crowd of cheering workers and supporters outside the location of the vote.

Lang rightly credited the determination of strikers for forcing the world's richest university to back away from demands from concessions from the working poor who keep Harvard's dining halls and other services running. The ratified contract was, Lang said, a "testament to when working-class people make a decision to draw a line in the sand and say, 'Enough is enough, and we're not going to take it anymore.'"

The primary issues in the strike were pay and health care costs. The union demanded and won a minimum annual salary of $35,000 for full-time workers, including for those temporarily laid off each year during the summer months when school isn't in session.

Local 26 members celebrate the ratification of a contract with Harvard
Local 26 members celebrate the ratification of a contract with Harvard (UNITE HERE Local 26)

The union also rejected the university's demand for workers to pay more toward health insurance premiums and increased co-pays for office and emergency room visits as part of moving to a new health plan. The contract accepts the new health plan, but Harvard will cover the increased costs for the full term of the contract.

The new contract also strengthens language around diversity and equality in hiring. In a battle where Harvard was demanding harsh concessions, union workers pushed back and stopped the onslaught.

THE DETERMINATION of the strikers during their 22-day walkout--and the solidarity that inspired--was key.

In addition to walking daily picket lines across the sprawling Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus, the dining services workers organized numerous large rallies and several acts of planned civil disobedience.

At the end of the strike's first week, a procession of several hundred strikers and supporters marched through bustling Harvard Square just off campus. Nine strikers sat down in the middle of the street for 20 minutes before being arrested. During the third week of the strike, more than 1,000 workers and supporters from all across New England rallied and marched around Harvard and Cambridge.

On the day before the tentative agreement was announced, more than 500 students participated in classroom walkouts and sit-ins at Harvard administration buildings.

That same day, the New York Times featured a powerful and widely read op-article ed by Rosa Ines Rivera, one of the dining workers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in which Rivera wrote: "I serve the people who created Obamacare, people who treat epidemics and devise ways to make the world healthier and more humane. But I can't afford the health care plan Harvard wants us to accept."

By the end of the strike, the workers had won the endorsement of the Cambridge City Council, the Boston City Council and the Boston Globe newspaper-- an especially surprising turn of events given that the Globe's initial article covering the strike clearly sided with the Harvard administration.

Hundreds of supporters made donations to a strike assistance fund set up by the union in order to help the workers, who, of course, received no pay from Harvard for the duration of the strike and only a modest amount of weekly support from the union.

IN THE end, however, the most significant aspect of the strike and its outcome may have been less tangible: For three weeks, the dining workers transformed the social climate at Harvard.

In normal times, the deans, administrators, professors and students are the unavoidable and centrally important actors on the stage of this elite academic theater. But during the strike, the workers stole the show and forced people to listen to what they had to say.

When the occasional Harvard office manager or a neighboring resident would come to the picket line and yell at the workers for being too noisy and disruptive, the workers remained unbowed and continued to bang on buckets, chant loudly and blast air horns.

In a message sent to all students, faculty and staff on the day the tentative agreement was announced, Harvard's vice president referred to the strike as a regrettable "disruption and inconvenience." But what's regrettable is that the workers were forced by Harvard to fight tooth and nail for the right to make something resembling a decent living.

It was much more of a disruption and inconvenience for workers to go without pay for three weeks while the bills piled up. But most of the dining workers viewed their struggle as something empowering--even liberating. Dining worker Markeith Leary said:

At first, I was surprised at how stubbornly Harvard turned its back on us. But then I was even more surprised at the outpouring of support we received from the students and other Harvard workers. This support was key in motivating me to get out on the picket line every day.

Walking a picket line every day for three weeks is very challenging. People got tired, people's voices were hurting. But when all of the dining workers came together on the picket lines and at the rallies, united as a family, it was very energizing. It made the experience fun and exciting, actually. It showed me the power we have when we all stand together.

WHEN WORKERS returned to their jobs after the strike ended, you could see the dignity they had won for themselves lingering in the expressions on their faces as they exchanged hugs and handshakes from student supporters and fellow co-workers. In this respect, the changes won in the contract were matched by the changes that many workers felt they themselves had undergone.

Rachel Herman has been working in dining services at Harvard for 21 years. When the union first held a strike authorization vote on September 15, Herman abstained, feeling pessimistic about the ability of workers to win a strike against Harvard--especially because other unions on campus had recently agreed to contracts that contained concessions similar to those being demanded of the dining workers.

However, once the strike began, Herman was immediately struck by the size, intensity and seriousness of the action. She threw herself into organizing and ended up spending more time at Harvard participating in the action than she normally spends working her regularly scheduled job.

Herman says that it was especially poignant for her when people on the picket line chanted, "No justice, no peace!"--since she has had bad experiences on the job being harassed by managers and unfairly disciplined by the Human Resources department. As she explained:

The only reason we ended up winning such a great contract is because we fought for it. We were united, we were visible, and we stuck together. The strike grew more and more intense and bigger every day. Ninety-five percent of us stayed out on strike--only 14 people ended up crossing the picket line. That's amazing.

It was never a guarantee that we would win. We could have lost bad. We could have been forced to end the strike and crawl back to our jobs defeated, with a lousy contract. That would have been horrible. But we didn't. I don't think the university expected us to be this tough.

Anabela Pappas is another dining worker who thinks she changed a lot during the course of the strike: "One of the most unexpected things I learned very early on in the strike was how cruel and cold-hearted the people at the top of Harvard could be," she said. "I was surprised to see humans treating other humans like that. I realized that it was all about the money. I had never dealt with these people directly in terms of money before."

During the course of the strike, Pappas emerged as a leader among the UNITE HERE members. She was one of the nine workers--all women, she makes a point of emphasizing--who sat down in the street and got arrested in Harvard Square on October 14. As she said of the moment when the police moved in and began making arrest.

I was so scared, I was shaking like a leaf. But we were surrounded by what seemed like thousands of people supporting us. I just looked into the faces of my coworkers and said to myself, "I can do this." A lot of us come from other countries, you know. We were scared what would happen. But afterward, we all said that we would do it again if we had to.

Pappas explained that winning a good contract wasn't the only outcome of the strike:

We won respect. In all my 35 years working here, I have never seen Harvard Square like this before. I never felt like it was my Harvard Square. Before, I would walk around as a nobody, as if I was just passing through someone else's space. But the way we shook up this place, the amount of support we got--it was just amazing."

The lesson for me is that if you believe, if you fight, if you stay together, you will win. From the beginning, I always knew that we would stay out on strike as long as we had to. But after the first week, I was getting scared. People were hungry, the weather was getting cold, family issues kept coming up for people. I was worried that people would cross the picket line.

We have a very strong union, though, and we prepared a lot for the strike. After we voted to strike, the union sent people out to us to talk to us, get us ready and organized, gave us tools for how to talk to co-workers and family about the strike. We had meeting after meeting, in large and small groups, in many different languages. We had classes in how to organize a strike and what to do while on strike. We made sure that every single person felt included in the strike and had a role to play.

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