Can't Serve Prestige

Harvard University Dining Services on strike

by Lisa Borst & Will Tavlin

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published October 28, 2016

On Saturday, October 22, a middle-aged man stood in the rain on the corner of John F. Kennedy Street and Memorial Drive, wearing a Harvard University Dining Services baseball cap. Under a poncho, he held a sign: “Harvard should treat their employees with the same courtesy and respect we have for the students in our dining halls.” Peter, who wished not to give his last name, has worked for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) for 21 years. Alongside nearly 750 other coworkers, he was approaching his third week of being on strike against the University, advocating for higher wages and affordable healthcare.

Around him, thousands of students and alumni—from Harvard as well as from other elite universities around the world—milled around the banks of the Charles River, which divides Cambridge, MA from Boston. This past Saturday was day one of the Head of the Charles Regatta, an annual two-day rowing event that attracts tens of thousands of visitors. As crew teams rowed past, onlookers purchased concessions from luxury companies and startups—lobster rolls, vitamin-enriched water. A Brooks Brothers tent hawked plaid umbrellas for $80. 

Peter was soaked. He told the Independent that, because he hadn’t been working during the strike, he was two months behind on his mortgage. His mother had taken money from the bank account she had set up to pay for her funeral to help him make his payments. No one—not the union, nor Harvard students, nor the administration—had expected the strike to go on for as long as it did. 

This Wednesday, negotiators from Harvard and HUDS—represented by the Boston branch (Local 26) of international labor union UNITE HERE—reached an agreement, ending the unprecedented strike. Harvard’s dining workers had only gone on strike once before: for about four hours, in the summer of 1983. Harvard is, as it was then, the wealthiest university in the world. As many workers and media outlets have pointed out, the $35,000/year salary demanded by HUDS workers represents one-one millionth of the school’s $35 billion endowment. This dissonance—alongside Harvard’s status as symbolic of elite universities more generally—is part of why the strike has received the attention it has: in the past three weeks, the strike has been covered by several national news outlets, and was endorsed by a broad swath of organizations and public figures, including the Boston Globe, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Cambridge and Boston City Councils, and Ben Stiller. 

With the strike now over, the question remains: why was the world’s wealthiest university so reluctant to cede to its service workers’ demands? On Saturday, Peter said that, despite the financial impacts he’s felt, “it seems like [the administration’s] battle with us is not really over money. It’s over trying to tell us that they’re the ones who run Harvard, not us. It’s like a power move.” 




HUDS employees’ contract with Harvard University officially expired on September 17 after four months of failed negotiations. UNITE HERE Local 26 has steadfastly demanded two points since negotiations began last June: a guaranteed annual minimum wage of $35,000 and maintaining their existing affordable health care benefits. Until now, HUDS workers earned an average of $21.89 per hour—a number the university has repeatedly cited as one of the highest among cafeteria workers and service workers in Boston. But HUDS workers don’t work during Harvard’s summer and winter breaks, which combine to nearly 3.5 months of de facto unemployment; spread out over the course of a full year, their annual wage was estimated by the union as just over $30,000. 

Medical benefits remained the sticking point amidst negotiations. Harvard initially offered the union several plans which wouldn’t go into effect until 2018, and which would significantly increase both co-pays and monthly premiums. The Harvard Medical School’s class of 2019 estimated the plans’ annual costs for a family of three at around $3,000, which, including additional emergency care, could total up to 16% of a HUDS worker’s annual income. “I’m a type 1 diabetic who has to take insulin to survive,” said Annabel A. Pappas, who has worked at Harvard for 35 years, at a rally. “Harvard University wants to decide if I live or die.” After months of Harvard refusing to budge, and after working without a contract for more than a week, the workers voted 591–18 to authorize a strike in mid-September. 

The strike, from its beginning, put a great deal of financial pressure on HUDS workers. Local 26 set up a strike assistance fund, but was only able to pay workers on the picket line $40 a day. “I’m not sure how much longer we can take it, but we have to,” Peter told the Indy, 17 days into the strike. “We just can’t give in at this point.” 

On October 14, nine female HUDS employees and two members of UNITE HERE, including Local 26 President Brian Lang, were arrested after shutting down traffic in Harvard Square in protest of the strike. One of the women who was arrested was Rosa Ines Rivera, a charismatic mother of two who has worked for HUDS for 17 years. Rivera told the Indy that the arrests were planned ahead: “We just wanted to make a statement, we wanted to try to get the attention of the administrators,” she said on Monday. “It seems like they’re pretty slow at drawing their attention to our cause.”

The arrests galvanized the attention of the public. Last Saturday, just blocks from the Head of the Charles Regatta, Local 26 held a rally featuring the nine women who’d been arrested. Nearly 1,000 supporters arrived at Cambridge Commons to demonstrate their support for the strike. Mounted on the back of an 18-wheeler flatbed truck, members of Local 26 and Teamsters Local 25 pumped up the crowd. “If we don’t get it?” Local 26 president Brian Lang asked the crowd. “Shut it down!” supporters responded. Dozens of unions poured out from New Haven, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City in solidarity. Rhode Island Jobs with Justice bussed several dozen supporters from downtown Providence. Speakers repeatedly questioned the administration’s moral standing. “They are acting like a white-collar crime syndicate,” said Sean O’Brien, President of Teamsters Local 25. “They are not rewarding the people who are responsible for the next generation of world leaders. You serve them day in and day out with the utmost respect, but more importantly, with pride in your job.”

Rivera, a mother of two, told the Indy that the work she puts into her job and the recognition Harvard gives to its workers don’t balance out. “These kids that come to the school are like our kids. We don’t turn our backs on them. We’re here when there’s a storm, we spend the night to make sure they eat,” said Rivera. “We’re here for the students, but we have a family to take care of. We cannot give 100% to the students if our families are not 100%.” 




Rivera’s sentiments speak to why the strike received so much support from Harvard’s student body, including endorsements from Harvard’s Undergraduate Council and the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson. At Harvard, undergraduate communities are organized around dining halls: each of the university’s “houses”—dormitories where nearly all students live for the entirety of their time as undergraduates—contains its own dining hall, with a dedicated regular staff of HUDS workers. “We all as students feel like we’re a community,” said Gabe Hodgkin, a junior and a member of the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), an undergraduate student group dedicated to organizing around labor movements. “Dining hall workers were some of the first people on campus to know our names. They check in with us every day, they show up everyday to work with us.” 

When the strike began, several dining halls immediately shut down, meaning that many students had to eat at different houses’ dining halls—which were, predictably, overcrowded and understaffed. Harvard contracted temporary workers to staff the remaining dining halls, but the food they served was critiqued by students as unhealthy, and it lacked ingredient listings for students with food allergies. “They brought in frozen food, and it’s quite bad,” said Henry Gomory, a member of SLAM. Last Friday, as the strike was still ongoing, Gomory showed the Indy graphics he’d been making and circulating on SLAM’s social media; in one image, an ambiguous dessert is crowned with a chunk of undercooked meat. The caption reads: “Meat in the banana pudding? BringbackHUDS!” Gomory, a senior, said that although his priorities laid with achieving justice for HUDS workers, the university’s response to the strike had had negative consequences even for students who didn’t support the strike. “Harvard is not providing the food that they promised you, and you’re paying for it. It feels like a breach of contract,” he said. 

Throughout the strike and in the months leading up to it, SLAM worked alongside HUDS employees and organizers from UNITE HERE Local 26 to drum up support among students. This past Monday, SLAM organized a student walkout, the second in two weeks. At 2pm on the strike’s 20th day, as tour groups weaved their way across Harvard’s 

iconic Yard, around 500 students streamed out of class and gathered around a statue of founder John Harvard. SLAM member Jonathan Roberts addressed the crowd with a megaphone. “We’re tired, as students,” he said to the crowd. “But this fight is really not about us. This fight is about over 700 workers coming together and arguing and fighting for their rights, for 20 days without pay… It’s about creating a sense of solidarity with every member of the Harvard community.”

Across Harvard Square, in an administrative building at 124 Mt. Auburn Street, representatives from Unite Here Local 26, including Brian Lang, had already been in negotiations for several hours with Harvard administrators. Together, students and workers marched to Mt. Auburn Street, chanting. At the administrative building, students staged a sit-in in the lobby as workers picketed outside. Indoors, as hundreds of bodies assembled, SLAM member Noah Wagner told the Indy that the sit-in was an attempt to pressure the university by disrupting academic life. “Things in the classroom could not continue with business as usual if the lives and livelihoods of our dining hall workers were being disrupted, being disregarded,” they said.

Pressure was building on the university from beyond the classroom as well: that morning, the New York Times had published an op-ed by Rosa Rivera, the HUDS worker who’d been arrested earlier in the month. In it, Rivera describes falling behind on her rent this past August, and having to move into public housing with her children—one of whom was recently told she might need surgery. “I know that health care costs are going up everywhere, and I don’t have all the answers,” wrote Rivera. “But there must be some way not to shift costs onto Harvard’s poorest workers.” In the Times, Rivera invoked the inscription carved onto a wall of the School of Public Health, where she works: The highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being. 

Outside the sit-in on Monday, Rivera told the Indy, “I just found it really ironic that something like that could be on a building at the same university we’re striking against for affordable healthcare.” 




This month’s HUDS strike invokes a noteworthy history of labor organizing among its workers, and an equally visible history of anti-unionization sentiments on the part of its administration. In the 1970s and ’80s, clerical and technical workers at Harvard popularized the phrase “we can’t eat prestige” to protest the idea that elite universities could pay their employees minimally because of the name-brand work experience they provided. The protests resulted in recognition of unionized labor by the university after several decades of resistance.  

Then as now, the administration’s actions raised the question: why would Harvard—which the Atlantic described in an article about the strike published on Wednesday as “the richest school in the country and the birthplace of some of the nation’s most progressive policies”—so adamantly refuse to meet the demands of its service workers? 

At Saturday’s rally, Brian Lang addressed the supporters. “In 18 days, this strike has spun more than the battle over these modest demands,” he bellowed. “It has turned into a battle for the soul of Harvard University as an institution…Today we have a Harvard that operates more like a corporation that does a little bit of education on the side—rather than a beacon of higher education that uses the wealth it attracts to combat income inequality, race inequality, and gender inequality.” Harvard’s months-long reluctance to cede to its service workers' demands points to a fundamental inconsistency between its actions and the intellectual and social ideals it claims to uphold: an inconsistency rooted in the administration’s attempt to control the limits of Harvard’s community.




Around 1:30am on Tuesday, after most students had left the sit-in, Lang walked out of the administrative building where he’d been negotiating all day. A video posted on SLAM’s Facebook page shows Lang addressing the small crowd of workers and students remaining outside, who are already tentatively chanting. “Victory. Everything,” he declares, and the crowd erupts in cheers.

On Wednesday, the details of the approved negotiations were released. Harvard agreed to an annual minimum wage of $35,000, yearly 2.5% wage increases, and full coverage of medical related copayments through 2021. These agreements meet every point the union had demanded.

But unionized workforces at other universities face similar obstacles to those at Harvard, often without the visibility accorded by such a uniquely prestigious institution. Karen McAninch is a business agent for United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island (USAW), which represents multiple groups of service workers at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, including the Brown Dining Service workers (BDS) and heads the union’s bargaining team. She says that BDS workers’ hourly wages will be a major bargaining point in the next round of negotiations, set for 2018. As employees of a non-profit educational institution, BDS workers, like HUDS, can’t collect unemployment from the federal government during breaks in the academic year. “It creates an inequity for this particular group of people because they’re paid hourly,” McAninch explained. Other positions at universities usually have annual salaries, which account for the summer gap. “But folks who work in cafeterias don’t make as much money and they generally don’t get enough to cover themselves for 12 months a year when they’re only working nine,” said McAninch. 

McAninch is hopeful that the success of the strike at Harvard will help in negotiations with Brown and elsewhere. As the world’s wealthiest and the most visible university, Harvard’s treatment of its workers reflects on the ability of higher education institutions to uphold managerially the standards that they hold themselves to intellectually. 

Outside of 124 Mt. Auburn Street, Rivera told the Indy that the HUDS strike means as much to Harvard as it does to service workers everywhere. “We are trying to push Harvard to make decisions in the future that make more sense to its employees,” said Rivera. “We’re hoping that Harvard can make an example for other universities, other food service workers, just the working class period.” 


LISA BORST and WILL TAVLIN B’17.5 believe in the right to the highest attainable standard of health