UC Workers Struggle to Eat; Harvard Food Workers Remain on Strike


Seven in ten University of California workers in clerical, administrative and support services struggle to put adequate food on the table, according to a new study reported in today’s Los Angeles Times.  The study, conducted by Occidental College, found that 45% of 2,890 employees surveyed throughout the 10-campus UC system went hungry at times. An additional 25% had to reduce the quality of their diet.  The problems persisted even though most of those surveyed were full-time employees with college degrees and average earnings of $22 an hour.

Peter Dreier, an Occidental professor of politics who led the study with two colleagues and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 2010, called the results startling.  “This is a systemwide problem; it exists on every campus,” Dreier said. “This is not a handful of people who happen to be down on their luck. They need a living wage so they can afford to feed their families.”

The food problems among UC workers were even worse than those found among students in a separate university study in June (see also my previous post, “Our Hungry, Homeless Students“). That survey of nearly 9,000 UC students found that 42% did not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food, prompting UC President Janet Napolitano to announce a $3.3-million effort to expand the fight against campus malnutrition.

According to the Times,

Dreier said California’s high housing costs make it difficult for workers to feed themselves and their families adequately. A 2013 California Budget Project study found that single-parent families with two children needed $74,000 annually, or nearly a $36-an-hour wage, just to make ends meet. A two-parent household with two children needed about $61,000, while a single adult needed about $33,000.

Joseph Meyer, a 31-year-old administrative assistant at UC Berkeley, earns nearly $20 an hour but said he skips breakfast and sometimes additional meals to have enough money for his asthma medications. His $1,150 monthly rent eats up more than half of his $2,100 monthly take-home pay. . . .

Catherine Cobb made just under $25,000 annually as a housing coordinator and medical administrative assistant at UC Irvine from 2001 to 2014. That wasn’t enough to feed her and her son, so she would furtively take food from university events. A friend noticed her struggles and began buying her lunch.

“I didn’t want to talk about it because I was ashamed,” Cobb said. “Who wants to tell people they can’t make it?”

UC’s flagship Berkeley campus is sometimes called the “public Harvard,” but at the actual Harvard a strike of cafeteria workers continues after nearly two weeks.  Indeed, on Friday the conflict escalated as eleven people were arrested blocking traffic in support of the strikers.  According to the Harvard Crimson,

The 11 people sat in a circle at the intersection of JFK Street and Massachusetts Avenue, blocking traffic, as roughly 100 other people chanting [and] brandishing signs in support of the union lined the streets. After more than 20 minutes of demonstration and chanting about the negotiations, police officers arrested labor organizers and Harvard University Dining Services workers. Those arrested will be charged with disorderly conduct and put up for bail immediately, according to CPD Deputy Superintendent Steven DeMarco.

Two of those arrested were the president and lead negotiator of the Boston-based union representing dining workers, UNITE HERE Local 26—Brian Lang and Michael Kramer.

Workers and supporters protest in Harvard Square

Workers and supporters protest in Harvard Square

Other supporters of the strike simultaneously interrupted a joint reunion event for the Classes of 1971, 1976, and 1986 where University President Drew Gilpin Faust was speaking Friday afternoon. An alumnus, Jonathan K. Walters ’71, helped two students—Gabe G. Hodgkin ’18 and Grace F. Evans ’19—into the meeting, and around a dozen student strike supporters followed them. The students said they chanted “support the strike.” Members of the Harvard University Police Department escorted them out.

More than a thousand alumni have signed a pledge that “until workers settle a fair contract, we withhold all gifts to Harvard University and affiliates”.

The cafeteria staff are demanding affordable health care and base pay of $35,000 for year-round workers.  Seven hundred and fifty members of Unite Here Local 26 began their strike after four months of fruitless negotiations.  Most of the striking employees work eight months of the year because of student recesses, making an average hourly wage of $21.89, or $33,839 a year, according to the university. The union says workers are paid closer to $20 per hour, and that employees who work all year should receive $35,000.  A group of Harvard Medical School students analyzed the university’s health insurance proposal. They concluded it would be “more expensive for employees than what would be available to them on the Massachusetts Health Care Exchange if Harvard did not offer any plan”.

Harvard has an endowment of $37.6 billion, the largest in the US. Last week, the school announced a $10 million study, funded by a family foundation, which will in part go toward researching poverty.

Faust, Harvard’s 28th president but first woman to hold that office, is a prominent historian of the Civil War era.  At a press conference announcing her appointment she said, “I hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago.”  Apparently, she’s not inclined to open opportunities to all those — female and male — who work for her.

In the wake of a series of layoffs in June 2009, Faust was criticized for refusing to accept a pay cut in an effort to save jobs. In the months preceding the layoffs, various campus groups called upon her and other administrators to reduce their salaries as a means of cutting costs campus-wide.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Faust’s total annual compensation last year was $929,584.

“To win this contract fight, Harvard is counting on dividing students from workers,” said Grace Evans, a sophomore. “I promise you it is not going to work.”

Laquiesha Rainey, a cook, said she had “thought getting a job at Harvard meant I wouldn’t struggle anymore”.

“Last summer,“ she said, “I had to borrow money to buy diapers for my daughter.”

UPDATE:  For a revealing inside look at the actual experiences and lives of Harvard’s striking food service workers, see this fascinating story from Harvard Crimsonhttp://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/10/13/huds-strike-scrutiny/

FURTHER UPDATE: UNITE HERE Local 26 is reporting that today Harvard students walked out of classes to support the strikers.  Here’s a picture:


2 thoughts on “UC Workers Struggle to Eat; Harvard Food Workers Remain on Strike

  1. Pingback: Harvard Faculty Members Support Strikers | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: Victory at Harvard! | ACADEME BLOG

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