The strike is on! After more than three months of frustrating negotiations with the university, Harvard University Dining Services workers announced that they will be going on strike starting Wednesday, October 5, 2016.
Following a rally in Harvard Yard last Friday afternoon, HUDS workers and students marched into Belinda Hall, where three workers spoke to an audience of supporters about their experiences as Harvard employees. Better than any statistic, these workers’ stories highlight Harvard’s inability or unwillingness to live up to its progressive values. Harvard would rather cut corners on labor costs than ensure stable livelihoods for its lowest-paid workers, whose services are essential for students’ well-being. As Willie Moore, the Hark’s “buffalo chicken wrap guy” succinctly put it, “Harvard is just as it is in the streets.” While Harvard may appear classy to the rest of the world, those on the inside know the crass truth.
Cuts to medical insurance are the pivotal point of contention. As Gene VanBuren, a Hark chef, explained: “Health care can’t be taken away until the next contract. But when they raise wages, they cut hours. Addition by subtraction.” While Harvard can insidiously offset all wage concessions by cutting hours, health care is less amenable to tactics of this sort.
Not only is Harvard’s proposed health plan less affordable than insurance available through the state health insurance exchange, but its array of vexing copays will exacerbate income insecurity and underlying medical conditions. Gene warned of the unconscionable dilemmas many workers will be forced to confront: “Do I go to the doctor or do I go to the grocery store? Do I take my kids to the emergency room because of a fever or give them Tylenol because rent is due next week?”
The copays pose an especially dire threat to those with chronic conditions as they will be unable to afford the consistent access to doctors and medicine they need. Every penny counts for low-income workers. An institution as prestigious and wealthy as Harvard should enable its employees to get the care they need without having to sacrifice other essentials.
Health care is not the only issue on the table. Workers are also fighting for a livable income. In the summer and winter months when students are away, the university significantly curtails working hours. As such, many workers find themselves without any work. Harvard chooses to hire contractors for other campus jobs, knowing full-well the surrounding employers’ disinclination to hire HUDS workers for only a few months’ work. Thus, HUDS employees are often forced to live an entire year on eight months’ worth of income. Harvard’s excuses for not conceding to the union’s demands come across as flimsy in light of its abundant resources and, on the other hand, the degree of the workers’ hardship. Yale has managed to offer its dining workers full-time work without breaking its piggy bank, so why can’t Harvard?
Underlying these disputes is the issue of gender and racial equality. Women and people of color working for HUDS encounter injustice on a daily basis. Of the 10 percent most highly compensated dining hall workers, none are women. Of the lowest-paid jobs, 90 percent are women. Men of color under 40 make $7,000 less than the average HUDS worker, while women of color under 40 earn $11,000 less. Willie drove this point home when he said “I have never seen an African American supervisor and I’ve been here for eighteen years.” From last year’s black tape incident to ongoing and pervasive wage inequality, racism is alive and well at Harvard. Harvard’s claims of progressiveness are debunked at every turn. Here, we confront its true nature: Harvard. the world’s most prestigious hot air balloon. It is undeniable that those who earn the least are overwhelmingly women and people of color, and that these groups will be become most vulnerable under this contract. Enough is enough! If negotiations remain at a standstill by the end of the day Tuesday, HUDS will go on strike.
It is imperative that students stand in solidarity with the workers in their struggle against the Harvard. First and foremost, we can speak with our wallets. As Ana Umana, Hark’s vegetable and fruit preparer, exclaimed during the panel, “Don’t buy food!”Economic pressure is the most powerful tool in demanding concessions from a penny-pinching, “non-profit” corporation. Boycott the Hark until HUDS workers can return to their post with dignity and equitable healthcare!
Secondly, for the duration of the strike, Hark employees will be picketing for over twelve hours a day without pay or meals. Student organizations, 1L section committees, and individual students should take this opportunity to support the HUDS workers by reinforcing their picket lines with our bodies, and by bringing the striking workers snacks and drinks whenever possible. They take care of us every day of the week. Now it is our turn to take care of them.
Thirdly, the Hark employees cannot picket on campus – they will be picketing on Mass Ave and by the Everett Street loading dock – but students can go anywhere. We encourage students to stand by the Hark and Pub Grille with signs, flyers, and posters to remind patrons of their complicity in Harvard’s duplicity. Tell your friends about the strike and the HUDS workers’ request for our support! Friends don’t let friends cross picket lines!
Students can also join the picket line and speak to the workers. We can learn their stories. Ask them why they’re striking and how the health cuts will affect their lives. Ask them about their families, and about how they find work during the off-months. Building solidarity and understanding is essential if we are to pursue our common interests as members of the Harvard community.
Harvard administrators do not know precariousness, yet they propose to subject HUDS workers to it every day. The Crimson sides with HUDS against Harvard. Harvard Medical students side with HUDS. The Cambridge City Council sides with HUDS. Reclaim Harvard Law, Students for Inclusion, the National Lawyers Guild, Lambda, La Alianza, HBLSA, ACS, APALSA, the Food Law and Policy Clinic, and SALSA all side with HUDS. Whose side are you on?
Daniel Espo and Joshua Komarovsky are 2Ls.
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