Harvard Dining Hall Workers Strike for Fairness
by Stephen Lendman
In my junior and senior years, as a member of Harvard’s class of 1956, I worked part-time in my Lowell House dining hall - one of various jobs I had, including summers throughout four years of college, to earn money for tuition, room, board and other expenses.
As a student, I was non-union, so was unaware of whether issues similar to what got dining hall workers to begin striking on October 7 existed then. Perhaps not as wages and benefits were much fairer than now - certainly in industry, likely in service jobs.
After contract talks broke down, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) struck for the first time since 1983 - their only walkout ever during an academic year. No strike action occurred during my four years on campus.
Workers demand what they deserve. At over $37 billion at yearend 2015, Harvard’s endowment, the academic world’s largest, shows the university can easily afford to treat its workers fairly.
They want living wages and fair health insurance benefits. Harvard’s administration offered little improvement in rotten pay and poor benefits - demanding dining service workers pay huge healthcare premium increases plus higher deductibles and co-pays.
Their contract expired in June, extended through September 30. Greater Boston is a high-cost-of-living area. Around half of dining service workers earn less than $35,000 annually, only for the academic year, barely enough to support one person meagerly at best.
According to Rahul Nayak, Sanjay Kishore, Darshali Vyas and Micah Johnson, “Harvard’s proposed health plan is more expensive for (its) employees than (what’s) available (through) the Massachusetts health care exchange…”
If agreed to, it might “threaten the financial security of many families of Harvard employees…For nearly all dining service workers, Harvard’s proposed health plan is considered unaffordable under state government guidelines.”
“If Harvard offered comparably affordable health insurance, most workers could save thousands of dollars every year.”
“As physicians in training, we cannot stand by as the world’s richest university forces its most vulnerable employees to choose between dinner and a doctor’s visit.”
As a graduate student in the late 1950s, post-Harvard and military service, the cost of health insurance was minimal compared to today. For around $110, I got adequate annual coverage until employed after graduating, able to get excellent company provided insurance, an invaluable benefit free of charge.
Costs are exponentially higher today, unaffordable for growing millions - insurers, drug companies and large hospital chains profiting at the expense of consumers.
On October 13, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported dining hall workers holding firm on their “core demands.”
They want and deserve affordable healthcare coverage, year-round employment, and a “minimum guaranteed salary” of $35,000. They’re paid a low-wage hourly rate, living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling while strike action continues.
According to lead union negotiator Michael Kramer, “(e)ither (Harvard) shift(s) costs on(to) the workers or they don’t. There is no middle ground.”
So far, Harvard rejects fairness. Strike action continues. According to the Crimson, “HUDS workers…laid off during Harvard’s recesses…are unable to draw (unemployment benefits) because of the university’s status as a non profit institution.”
For the 2016-17 undergraduate academic year, students pay $63,025 for tuition, room, board and fees. An additional health insurance cost of $2,630 is required unless they have private family coverage.
Harvard is wealthy enough to treat its workers fairly. It can do a lot better than poverty wages and high-cost healthcare insurance. To its disgrace, it’s not budging so far.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.
His new book as editor and contributor is titled "Flashpoint in Ukraine: How the US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III."
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