Harvard settles food workers strike. PR nightmare resolved?

Harvard University's dining hall employees have been fighting for a wage increase and to keep health-care costs down, drawing sympathy from Harvard students and faculty.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
A student walks through Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Harvard University reached an agreement with its striking coalition of dining workers early Tuesday morning, bringing a strike that pitted Ivy League students and their school’s lowest-paid employees against the university administration.

The strike, which began nearly three weeks ago, engendered a PR nightmare for the school when students publicly criticized the world famous university for slighting vulnerable low-income employees in a metro area that’s becoming increasingly unaffordable and has a history of inequality. While the conditions of the agreement have not been made public, the union president representing strikers said they had “accomplished all of our goals” and that workers could return to the vacant dining halls as soon as Thursday.

The workers’ union, Unite Here Local 26, sought to raise the minimum salary to $35,000 and have Harvard cover a higher percentage of healthcare premiums. Around one third of dining workers fell below that threshold.

While Harvard touted the average dining worker’s salary with benefits as higher than the City of Cambridge’s “livable wage” standard at around $48,000, many employees had said they were barely making ends meet when it came to caring for their children and having enough money leftover to visit doctors themselves.

"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," union spokeswoman Tiffany Ten Eyck previously told The Christian Science Monitor.  

Students decried the university’s reasoning, noting that with the world’s highest university endowment of $36 billion, Harvard could afford to set an example in terms of fair wages.

"This is about time to change and turn things around because it's not fair what they are doing," Jack Barbosa, who has worked for campus eateries for nearly a decade, told the Monitor during the strike’s early days. "They always try to squeeze the little guy."

Over the weekend, hundreds of students from Boston-area schools joined the Harvard strikers at a large rally and march that ended at Cambridge City Hall. As support for strikers grew and the issue gained national attention, pressure against the university’s administration mounted.

Many see the decision as a step toward progress in ensuring that food service and low-income workers receive their fair share of pay for doing the grunt work behind the scenes of a multi-million, or in this case, billion, institution. As Ellen McGirt wrote in a Forbes column, the strike has likely provided some of the nation’s brightest students with a first-hand look at systems of inequality.

“The Boston area has a long history of racial discord and inequality that, like most cities, extends into systems that continue today. Harvard has an opportunity to address a small piece of that, and I hope they do,” she wrote. “But it will be worth watching how this alliance will affect the many future leaders who have just learned the name of the ‘buffalo chicken wrap guy,’ while looking across an abundant table only to discover that not everybody is getting their fair share. That sounds like the education of a lifetime.”

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