Harvard Food Workers Strike, Ongoing

Photo: Jessica Colarossi

For the first time in more than 30 years, Harvard food service employees are on strike. Protests began early morning Wednesday, October 5, with hundreds of workers and student gathering around dining halls and marching, drumming and chanting along Massachusetts Avenue.

“Shame on you! Shame on you!” a group of protesters were shouting in front of Kirkland House on John F. Kennedy Street around 11 a.m. Wednesday.

According to The Harvard Crimson, Harvard officials and their dining service employees have been negotiating for at least four months. Both sides met on Tuesday night to settle a new contract, but an agreement was not made by the deadline. Negotiations between  UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents the dining workers, and Harvard restarted the day after the strike began and continued through the weekend. The workers intend to continue to strike until an agreement can be made.

“I’ve been driving a truck at Harvard for 28 years,” said Shawn Higgins, a worker for Harvard’s dining services and one of the union stewards.  “We are asking for a decent increase in wages and asking for health care. We’re not asking to increase [health care], we’re asking to keep what we have.”

Higgins told SCN on Wednesday that they have been asking for more positions, including more summer work for the past 30 years. In an effort to reach an agreement, Harvard has proposed $150 to $250 weekly “summer stipends” for dining staff who are able to work during the summer, even if there are no open shifts. They also proposed a 10 percent wage increase over the next five years and an opportunity to enroll in the same health care plan Harvard University Clerical and Technical Workers negotiated last year. The proposed health care plan eliminates deductibles and increases copayments.

Local 26 has rejected all offers. Workers are asking for year-around work for all who are interested, a minimum salary increase of $35,000 per year for year-around employees, a 22 percent pay increase over the next five years, and no increase in health care costs. Currently an average Harvard dining services worker earns $21.89 an hour, plus $15,126 a year in benefits such as health care, paid time off, childcare reimbursements, retiree healthcare and pension, according to Harvard’s employee information page.

The workers have received strong support from students and student groups like Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement.  Two second-year Harvard medical students, Micah Johnson and Sanjay Kishore, published an op-ed less than a week before the strike began saying they, and many other students, are “deeply troubled to learn that our university was proposing changes to dining workers’ health plans that would make essential health care unaffordable.”

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economics professor, and Robert B. McKersie, professor emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management will act as mediators during the next bargaining sessions between the two parties.

“For now we will continue to disrupt campus in ways we can,” said Shawn Higgins. The next session of negotiations has exceeded 11 hours with still no agreement, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Jessica Colarossi graduated from Emerson College with a degree in journalism and publishing in 2016. She is passionate about social justice, environmental issues, gender equality and she is originally from Long Island, N.Y. Twiiter: @heyitsjessc.