BY HANK REICHMAN
Harvard University’s 600 dining hall workers went on strike this morning, calling for the university to pay them a living wage just a month after the elite school’s current fundraising drive hit a record-breaking $7 billion in donations. Harvard has been left scrambling to stockpile frozen food to feed students, according to the student newspaper.
The strike is the first at Harvard since June 1983, when dining service employees held a one-day work stoppage, according to university spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga. Unlike the work stoppage beginning today, that walkout did not occur while classes were in session.
After four months of contract discussions, negotiations between the school and the workers broke down yesterday afternoon. As of 8 a.m., deLuzuriaga said, there were no scheduled negotiation sessions set. Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, said the administration and the union have agreed to enlist Harvard economics professor Lawrence Katz and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus of management Robert McKersie as mediators when discussions begin again.
UNITE HERE is seeking annual pay of $35,000 for employees who want to work a full year rather than the shorter academic term. It is also asking for no increase in health care costs.
The workers have the support of many students, and members of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement were on-hand for the protest this morning. Some students handed out flowers to striking workers during the demonstration. “They ensure we’re healthy year round and now as students it’s our turn to ensure [dining service] workers remain healthy and are able to afford health care for their families,” said Grace Evans, a sophomore with the group, who said it has circulated a petition in support of the workers with more than 3,500 signatures. An alliance of 15 Harvard Law School groups called the strike a “struggle” rooted in race and class. A group of Harvard Medical School students who analyzed the university’s health plan during the negotiations called the costs “unaffordable” for the average dining hall employee.
The strike is hinged on the school’s extraordinary financial success, with fundraisers easily beating their goal to bring in $6.5 billion by 2018. Harvard maintains the $7 billion, like the rest of the university’s endowment, is earmarked for other purposes, and cannot simply be drawn on to increase workers’ pay. Returns on the school’s $37.5 billion endowment have been lagging for years, and its fund managers lost $2 billion in the 2016 fiscal year. Strike organizers say the huge fundraising sum is symbolic of Harvard’s vast wealth — and its relative stinginess when it comes to paying its laborers. The endowment, which funds about one-third of the school’s operating revenue, is by far the largest in the higher education world.
Harvard workers deserve a decent income and adequate and affordable health care. The university can more than afford to provide these. I hope members of the Harvard faculty will offer the kind of support their students are providing.