Workers Walk off the Job at World’s Richest University to Demand a Living Wage

Samantha Winslow October 7, 2016

Students, neighbors, and alumni have been showing their support at campus rallies and on social media. (UNITE HERE Local 26/ Facebook)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Labor Notes.

On Octo­ber 5, instead of set­ting up break­fast for thou­sands of col­lege stu­dents, 700 cafe­te­ria work­ers at the rich­est uni­ver­si­ty in the world kicked off their first strike in three decades.

Har­vard University’s din­ing hall work­ers are demand­ing a liv­ing wage of $35,000 a year, and fight­ing admin­is­tra­tion efforts to increase co-pays on top of already cost­ly health insur­ance plans.

Though their aver­age wage is $22 an hour, work­ers say it’s a strug­gle to get by dur­ing sum­mer breaks, when they’re out of work or forced to rely on low­er-wage temp jobs. They say uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors are uncon­cerned about the situation.

Their atti­tude is go find anoth­er job,’” said pantry stew­ard Anabela Pap­pas, who has worked on the cam­pus for 35 years. But nobody wants to hire you for three months.”

The strik­ers, mem­bers of UNITE HERE Local 26, set up 6 a.m. pick­ets at the fresh­man din­ing hall, which serves 1,600 stu­dents each day. Five hun­dred work­ers, stu­dents, and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ers pick­et­ed dif­fer­ent cam­pus sites, then merged for a march and ral­ly. Strike chants are in three lan­guages: Eng­lish, Span­ish, and Portuguese.

To feed stu­dents dur­ing the strike, it’s rumored that the uni­ver­si­ty has brought in high vol­umes of frozen food. Stu­dents say they want cooked meals, not frozen stuff or fried food,” said Pap­pas, who was thrilled with the out­pour­ing of stu­dent sup­port on the strike’s first day. We got more than 700 flow­ers from the stu­dents — they brought us fruit, food, water, and lots of hugs.”

In 19 nego­ti­at­ing ses­sions since May, even with the help of a fed­er­al medi­a­tor, the union and uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion couldn’t reach a deal. In Sep­tem­ber, work­ers vot­ed 591 – 18 to strike.

Oth­er Har­vard work­ers have con­sis­tent­ly demon­strat­ed that they are with us,” said UNITE HERE Nego­tia­tor Mike Kramer. It’s only an iso­lat­ed Har­vard admin­is­tra­tion that’s stand­ing against the workers.” 

Trick­le down U

With a $36 bil­lion endow­ment and a $63 mil­lion oper­at­ing sur­plus in 2015, Har­vard can’t claim finan­cial hard­ship. The uni­ver­si­ty recent­ly raised $7 bil­lion in the first three years of a five-year cap­i­tal campaign. 

Uni­ver­si­ty nego­tia­tors defend the wages offered to din­ing hall work­ers as generous. 

But fac­tor­ing in that most work­ers are laid off for the sum­mer and Jan­u­ary when the uni­ver­si­ty scales back its ser­vices and class­es, their aver­age year­ly take-home pay is only $32,000. And while employ­ees are out of work, they can’t col­lect unemployment.

Some employ­ees work nine months out of the year, said 13-year employ­ee Ker­ry Maia­to. Oth­ers work as lit­tle as sev­en months.

Din­ing work­ers are demand­ing a $35,000 min­i­mum year­ly salary, and press­ing the uni­ver­si­ty to offer solu­tions. One approach would be to pro­vide sim­i­lar work for equal pay dur­ing the sum­mer, when the cam­pus is open albeit with scaled down activ­i­ty. Anoth­er alter­na­tive would be to boost the hourly wage to help work­ers save up for the dry months.

Pap­pas works as a temp for cam­pus mail ser­vices over the sum­mer — earn­ing $8 an hour less than her job with din­ing ser­vices, and with­out hol­i­day pay. Oth­ers temp for Harvard’s real estate office, where they also make much less. I feel like we are rent­ed out,” Pap­pas said, doing the jobs their employ­ees do so they can go on vacation.”

We’re told that we are all Har­vard work­ers,” said Pap­pas, but we don’t feel that way when we don’t get the same pay or when on the Fourth of July we don’t get paid.”

Din­ing work­ers also want to stop the admin­is­tra­tion from rais­ing their health care costs, already at $281 a month for the most com­mon fam­i­ly plan, accord­ing to uni­ver­si­ty data. 

For the increas­es they are ask­ing, it’s not sus­tain­able for my fam­i­ly,” Maia­to said, espe­cial­ly in the city of Boston. It may not seem like a lot to the admin­is­tra­tion, but it does to folks who don’t work year-round.”

120-foot mur­al

Stu­dents, neigh­bors, and alum­ni have been show­ing their sup­port at cam­pus ral­lies and on social media. The Cam­bridge City Coun­cil has vot­ed to endorse the work­ers’ demands. So have Harvard’s Under­grad­u­ate Coun­cil and the Crim­son, the campus’s dai­ly newspaper.

I think peo­ple are in shock that Har­vard is doing this,” Pap­pas said.

Local 26 held a ral­ly and pick­et for a fair con­tract before the spring semes­ter wrapped up. Over the sum­mer, even though most mem­bers weren’t work­ing on cam­pus, 600 signed pledges to strike and took pho­tos of them­selves for a 120-foot mural. 

Work­ers unveiled the mur­al at their Sep­tem­ber 7 announce­ment that they were prepar­ing to strike, and again at the Sep­tem­ber 15 strike vote.

All we are ask­ing for is a fair con­tract,” Maia­to said, for Har­vard to let us into their community.”

Saman­tha Winslow writes for Labor Notes.
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