This marks the third week of the Harvard dining staff’s strike for livable wages and increased benefits, the first halt in the University’s operations since 1983.
In light of recent arrests and the 1,000- body march on Cambridge City Hall, the union representing 750 Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) workers, Unite Here Local 26 and the University have at last settled contract negotiations. Protesters and supporters hope that this agreement will prove more satisfactory than the concessions offered at the strike’s advent.
The strike also has implications that extend beyond the staff contracts. Harvard student Rob Hopkirk ’18 explained in an email that, as a result of the strikes, “The normal sense of community has been disrupted…the food now being served at the dining hall is well below the normal standard in terms of taste, nutrition, and hygiene.” Hopkirk noted that the relationship between the students and dining workers is strong, and that they are some of the more popular employees of the university. Despite the challenge the strike presents to students Hopkirk noted that they “are willing to live with the substandard food and dining services if it will help HUDS workers receive decent health care and a livable yearly income.”
Harvard has maintained that HUDS workers are paid better than most cafeteria staff and dining service workers at other prestigious institutions, earning $21.89 an hour with 42 paid vacation days, among other benefits. President of the Local 26 Union Brian Long counters that employees’ wages are insufficient, arguing for a greater annual wage raise from $3000 to $3500. He believes the strikers’ demands to be reasonable, stating that employees are at the very least pushing for maintaining current health care costs. He stated, “We have not said we want a decrease. We have just said no more extra costs” (The New York Times, “No End in Sight to Strike by Harvard’s Cafeteria Workers Over Wages,” 10.11.2016).
HUDS workers lament their disappointing wages, telling community members and media of their poor treatment by the university administration. Dining worker at Harvard Aaron J. Duckett said at an Oct. 17 rally, “We used to get a turkey on Thanksgiving [from Harvard] but over the years that turkey got smaller and smaller and smaller until now we get no turkey,” Duckett said. “This is representative of Harvard’s attitude towards us, [but] now, instead of taking a turkey away from us, they want to take away our health care” (The Harvard Crimson, “Hundreds of Students Leave Class to Support HUDS Strike,” 10.18.2016).
This past Tuesday, news broke that Harvard and HUDS had reached a tentative agreement, though the strike still had not ended. Even as workers and rallying students start to breathe a sigh of relief, Harvard and peer institutions like Vassar should not celebrate the outcome, but must instead look critically at our own campus workers and their conditions.
Vassar is no stranger to staff disputes. In Feb. 2015, Safety and Security became the last department to unionize after two failed efforts since 2000 (The Miscellany News, “After months, Safety and Security unionizes,” 02.25.2015). Later in 2015, following a student-supported rally the previous year, ACDC dining staff filed grievances objecting to, among other things, the elimination of the short-order cook position amidst a downsizing effort by the College.
In consequence, the ACDC workers had to do the work of both positions while still maintaining their lower pay grade (The Miscellany News, “Staffing and work grievances define ongoing dining woes,” 04.29.2015).
Vassar in many ways mirrors Harvard with respect to its staff, as both are elite institutions that generally hire local workers from relatively low-income backgrounds and thus carry an ingrained disconnect the wealth of the institutions and the economic realities of their workers.
In fact, this disconnect is only exacerbated when one considers the endowments that Harvard and Vassar possess–$35.7 billion in 2016 and $983 million in 2015, respectively– and the median household incomes of their surrounding communities, Cambridge, MA, and Poughkeepsie, NY ($75,909 and $68,076 from 2010-2014, respectively, according to the Census Bureau). If, according to the Washington Post, Harvard dining workers make around $33,800 per year, it is safe to assume that Vassar’s dining staff makes a comparable annual wage, if not less, adjusting for Vassar and Poughkeepsie’s economic gap.
On top of these financial realities, it is equally important to note that Vassar will be switching its food service provider starting in Fall 2017 from Aramark to Bon Appétit. In theory, the transition will not bring about any significant disruptions to the dining staff’s numbers or wages, as Bon Appétit will provide new managers while the staff will remain unionized Vassar employees. However, the difficulty of adapting to and creating a rapport with new management, coupled with mounting costs of the ongoing ACDC renovation, is a cause for concern.
In fact, the University of Chicago made the same switch from Aramark to Bon Appétit starting this school year, and so far the quality of food has not suffered and all UChicago dining workers were retained in the transition. However, when dining workers at the University of La Verne in California tried to unionize in 2012, they succeeded despite Bon Appétit’s minimal cooperation and seeming disregard for legitimate concerns about working conditions (Campus Times, “Bon Appétit food workers look to unionize,” 10.26.2012).
The contract between Vassar and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 200 United, which represents our Vassar campus staff and which is available online, provides for a grievance and arbitration. However, it stipulates, “[T]here shall be no strike, lockout or stoppage of work,” which will remain true through June 30, 2018, the end of the first year of Bon Appétit’s management here.
We at The Miscellany News offer our strong support for Harvard’s dining staff as the strike reaches its final days and we wish to express concern for our own dining workers at Vassar as the College transitions to Bon Appétit’s management.
We maintain that strikes, as well as student involvement in demonstrations, are a viable means to improve the conditions of our dining workers. In the words of two former Vassar Student Labor Dialogue (SLD) members, “As students, we must challenge the very idea that students’ and workers’ interests are at odds. Those of us that live and work on this campus share a united interest, and we must uphold respect, dialogue, and mutual reciprocity as the basis of our community” (The Miscellany News, “Students and workers must create mutual discourse” 11.04.2013).
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least two-thirds of The Miscellany News Editorial Board