Harvard University students may soon be eating frozen dinners instead of fresh food prepared by the university’s dining hall workers because the workers have gone on strike.
The strike began October 5 when the workers’ union UNITE HERE Local 26 and Harvard could not reach an agreement on a fair contract.
Before the strike, workers reported that Harvard University Dining Services had stockpiled frozen dinners to feed students during the strike. When the Harvard Crimson queried the university’s administration about the stockpiling, a university spokesperson declined to comment.
The strike began about three weeks after the old contract expired.
About 750 dining hall workers have joined the strike and have been picketing and rallying on campus.
Union members, many of whom are laid off for extended periods during the summer and winter break months, want a guaranteed salary of $35,000 a year.
Harvard, which raised $7 billion in its most recent fund raising campaign and has an endowment of $35.7 billion, the largest university endowment in the world, says it can’t afford the pay raise and it wants dining hall workers to pay more of their health care costs.
“All the money they have, and they still want to squeeze every bit out of us,” said Anabela Pappas, a dining hall worker at an October 5 rally supporting the strike,. “You greedy people. This (the strike) is what you caused, not us. We didn’t want to be here.”
An analysis of Harvard’s health care proposal prepared by four Harvard Medical School students finds that “For nearly all dining (hall) workers, Harvard’s proposed heal!h plan is considered unaffordable under state government guidelines.”
Most workers would pay $233 a month in premiums to cover their families, and Harvard wants workers to pay higher co-pays for doctor visits, prescriptions, tests, and procedures.
The analysis points out that some low-income dining hall workers would be eligible for co-pay reimbursements under Harvard’s proposal, but in order to get the reimbursement, the workers must pay the co-pay up front and file a claim for reimbursement.
“Harvard (proposed health care) plans . . . have more expensive out-of-pocket costs than plans on the Massachusetts (health care) exchange, and the design threatens the financial stability of low-income workers,” concludes the analysis.
Workers are concerned that the new out-of-pocket expenses will make health care less accessible for themselves and their families.
Gene VanBuren, a dining hall worker told the Christian Science Monitor that the main reason he went on strike was to get a better health insurance deal. “We work hard every day, and they try to shorten our hours and increase our workload, and now they want to take our health insurance,” said VanBuren to the Monitor.
Negotiations between the union and Harvard also failed to resolve issues regarding workers’ pay.
Harvard rightly argues that the average dining hall worker wage of $21.89 an hour is well above wages of workers in the area who do comparable work.
But the workers say that the hourly wage that they are paid isn’t enough because many are laid off without pay during the three-month summer break and the month-long winter break, and they are not eligible to draw unemployment insurance during the breaks because the university is a non-profit organization.
Even if you are making $21.89 an hour, living without an income for four months out of the year in the Boston/Cambridge area where Harvard is located would be difficult. According to the Harvard International Office, “the cost of living in the Boston/Cambridge area is among the highest in the United States.”
At (Harvard), the richest university in the world, no worker that is here and that is ready to work should be making less than $35,000 a year,” said Michael Kramer, a negotiator for Local 26 at a rally supporting the strikers.
The strike has won widespread support on campus.
The Undergraduate Council has voted to support the strike, the editorial board of the Crimson, the student newspaper, endorsed the strike, and so have a number of graduate student groups including the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW.
“HGSU-UAW stands in solidarity with (the dining hall workers) because all of Harvard’s employees deserve a sustainable standard of living,” reads a statement of support on the union’s Facebook page.
HGSU is also urging members to sign a solidarity petition in support of the workers.
“Harvard is the richest university in the world, yet it consistently fails to look out for its lowest-paid and hardest-working employees,” reads the petition. “The money required to maintain workers’ current health-care plans and ensure a sustainable annual income is inconsequential to the University but of utmost consequence to workers.”