First strike in 33 years: Why Harvard's food service workers walked out

While the union is pushing for higher wages and cheaper health insurance, the university contends the compensation and benefits it offers are already better than industry norms.

Steven Porter/Staff
Food service workers march Wednesday on Harvard University's campus, marking the first strike on the Ivy League campus since 1983. Hundreds of workers on the campus began picketing after contract negotiations between the university and Unite Here Local 26 union reached an impasse.

Jack Barbosa wears a chef's hat and an ear-to-ear smile as he stands outside Annenberg Hall on Harvard University's Cambridge, Mass., campus. As picketers march and chant across the street, he helps hold a series of large banners spelling out the slogan "Support the strike."

For the first time in 33 years, food service workers on the Ivy League campus have set down their kitchen utensils and walked out, shutting down some, but not all, of the university's dining facilities. Their union, which claims about 750 members on the campus, has support from student groups who agree the institution should pay higher wages and a greater share of employee health insurance premiums.

"This is about time to change and turn things around because it's not fair what they are doing," Mr. Barbosa, who has worked for campus eateries for nearly a decade, tells The Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday. "They always try to squeeze the little guy."

Amid chants of "Our health is not disposable" and "No justice, no peace," first-year law student Alexandra Rawlings and her friends distribute pizza to the strikers.

"We know that they usually get free meals when they're on the job working as dining staff, so not only are they out of pay, they're out of meals," Ms. Rawlings tells the Monitor, adding that she hopes to persuade classmates to contribute future meals as well. "We care about these people. We want to help them."

Not since 1983 has there been a strike on Harvard's campus. Even then, the stoppage lasted only one day during the summer, while most students were away, as The Boston Globe reported, citing a university spokeswoman.

Contract negotiations between the university and the workers' union, Local 26, had been ongoing for "the past few months" with no agreement reached, Harvard College dean of students Katie O'Dair said in a message to students, alerting them to the possibility of a strike. The impasse stems from two key sticking points: annual wages and rising health insurance costs being passed on to employees.

"That's the most important thing to me is the health insurance," Gene VanBuren tells the Monitor. "We work hard every day, and they try to shorten our hours and increase our workload, and now they want to take our health insurance."

And Harvard should thank food services for more than feedings its students, adds Mr. VanBuren, a union member who has worked at the school for about five years. Alumni contribute to the institution's endowment – the largest of any school's in the world, at about $36 billion – because food service employees and others work hard to "provide that Harvard experience for them," he says. 

Micah Johnson and Sanjay Kishore, second-year Harvard Medical School students, say the plan proposed by the university would "make essential health care unaffordable," citing an analysis they conducted with two other students.

A three-person family earning $30,000 would have to contribute $233 to their monthly health insurance premium, while the Massachusetts health exchange offers insurance with no premium at all, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Kishore wrote in an opinion piece. What's more, the Harvard plan has higher co-pays than the exchange plans.

An employee whose employer offers health insurance may still apply for the health exchange, but may not qualify for government subsidies, according to

"It is shocking that these low-income workers would be better off financially if they were not offered employer-sponsored insurance," Johnson and Kishore wrote.

"As physicians in training, we cannot stand by as the world’s richest university forces its most vulnerable employees to choose between dinner and a doctor’s visit," they added. "Harvard can do better, and this 'better' can have a ripple effect on other unions, other universities, and other workplaces across the nation."

The university contends, however, that its proposed plan would increase an average employee's cost by less than $11 monthly, as The Harvard Crimson reported. The threshold to qualify for full health benefits is "the lowest in the region" at 16 hours per week.

The university states, furthermore, that workers already receive "highly competitive wages, with rates that lead the local and national markets for comparable positions in the food service industry." The average dining services worker earns $21.89 per hour, according to Harvard. 

Union spokeswoman Tiffany Ten Eyck says raising hourly wages is good, but managers have tended to respond by reducing hours, leaving employees less financially stable on an annual basis.

"We feel like we're part of looking for innovative solutions beyond the weekly paycheck, beyond the monthly paycheck, looking at what working people are able to take home at the end of the year," Ms. Eyck tells the Monitor.

The university says two-thirds of the food service employees make more than $35,000 per year, including overtime, but the union has proposed setting a $35,000 "minimum guaranteed salary" for all its workers who want to work year-round, plus a 22-percent pay increase over five years, as the Crimson reported. The university has proposed a 10-percent increase over five years.

"A dining services employee at Harvard makes more in 38 weeks at Harvard than someone working year-round earning the City of Cambridge's 'livable wage' " of $15.04 per hour, the university notes. Counting nearly $34,000 in wages and more than $15,000 in benefits, the average total compensation for a Harvard dining hall worker is currently $48,965, according to the university.

Brian Lang, union president, notes that the student government voted to endorse the demonstrators, the Crimson's editorial board backed the strike, medical students scrutinized the health insurance options, and law students studied the implications of race and class baked into the proposed contracts.

"These are all initiatives that are completely independent of anything the workers are doing, anything the union is doing," Mr. Lang tells the Monitor. "To me, it says that there is an overwhelming sentiment for justice on this campus. There happens to be an administration and a corporation who isn't quite there yet."

The university has asked economics professor Lawrence Katz and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus Robert McKersie to assist with negotiations when they resume, the Globe reports. 

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