Victory at Harvard!

BY HANK REICHMAN

Harvard food service workers celebrate at contract announcement

Harvard food service workers celebrate at contract announcement

Early yesterday morning Harvard University and its striking food service workers reached a tentative agreement, which, if approved by union members in a vote scheduled for today, will bring to an end a 22-day strike that garnered national attention.  (For previous posts on this blog about the strike go here, here, here, and here.)  Under terms of the agreement Harvard will pay its full-time dining workers at least $35,000 a year under a new contract, conceding on one of the most contentious points of the tense, months-long contract negotiations, according to union president Brian Lang.

The tentative agreement came after a day of intense picketing and rallying by both workers and student supporters. More than 500 students walked out of class—the second walkout of the strike—before marching to 124 Mt. Auburn St. for a sit-in of about 250 students that lasted late into the night, wrapping up around 10:30 p.m. at the urging of police officers.  On Saturday more than 1,000 workers and supporters had marched on Cambridge City Hall to demand a settlement.

“The workers are there every day, making us three meals a day, plus a night snack,” said Itzel Vasquez-Rodriguez, a senior at Harvard. “They’ve always had our back in the past, so students have increasingly felt that now it’s our turn to have their back through this fight.”

The agreement also came a day after the New York Times published a powerful op-ed piece by Rosa Ines Rivera, a striking cafeteria worker.  “I’ve been at Harvard University for 17 years, but I’ve never been in a classroom here. I’m a cook in the dining halls. I work in the cafeteria at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where every day I serve amazing students studying medicine, nutrition and child welfare, as well as the doctors and researchers who train them,” Rivera wrote.  “While I’ve earned no college credits here, I’ve had a lesson in hypocrisy.”  She continued:

I serve the people who created Obamacare, people who treat epidemics and devise ways to make the world healthier and more humane. But I can’t afford the health care plan Harvard wants us to accept.

That’s why I have been on strike with 750 co-workers for more than two weeks. That’s why the other day, co-workers and I were arrested after we sat down in Harvard Square, blocking traffic, in an act of civil disobedience. And that’s why the medical school students, in their white coats, have been walking the picket line with us in solidarity. . . .

Harvard is the richest university in the nation, with a $35 billion endowment. But I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom. I grew up in the projects and on welfare. I want my 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to climb out of the cycle of poverty. But for most of my time at Harvard it’s been hard.

The average dining hall worker makes $31,193 a year, higher than other cafeterias in the area, but it still doesn’t go far around Boston. That’s why we’re asking for an annual salary of $35,000 for some financial stability, particularly since most dining halls are open only during the school year. Right now I’m lucky to work in one of the few cafeterias that’s open all year.

I know that health care costs are going up everywhere, and I don’t have all the answers. But there must be some way not to shift costs onto Harvard’s poorest workers.

If good health is truly “one of the fundamental rights of every human being,” then shouldn’t that also apply to the human beings working in Harvard’s cafeterias?

By the time Harvard and union negotiators announced their tentative agreement, only a small cohort of students remained outside the building, along with a few HUDS workers. At one point during the night, students and strikers joined hands and marched in a circle, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Abhinav Reddy, a School of Public Health student and graduate student union organizer, described the final moments of the night. Local 26’s bargaining team joined the demonstrators remaining outside, he said, and “everyone gathered back up and started chanting.”

“You could just see it on their faces before they even said anything,” Reddy said. “And everybody was like screaming and yelling, and then they said ‘we won, we got it.’”

Grace F. Evans ’19, said workers came out of the building visibly emotional before the crowd of supporters was told that the union had “won.”

“It was a really emotional moment,” she said. “The workers were crying but Brian Lang was smiling, so we knew it was good news.”

Reflecting on the day’s events, Evans said she felt students had been important to HUDS workers’ success, a sentiment some workers echoed.

“It was definitely powerful that we were here,” Evans said, referring to the earlier lobby sit-in. “The negotiators looked down and they saw that.”

This is a great victory for the Harvard workers, but also for higher education overall.  Faculty support was less visible than that from students, but those who teach at Harvard and those who learn from them are both winners.  And they can and should thank those who prepare and serve their meals for that.

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