Harvard workers win big!

Harvard University dining hall workers voted 583 to 1 to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement.

The ratification vote ends a three-week strike by members of UNITE HERE Local 26.

“We achieved every goal, without exception, with no concessions to Harvard,” said Local 26 President Brian Lang to the Boston Globe.

The new collective bargaining agreement guarantees that full-time dining hall workers will be paid at least $35,000 a year and protects workers from rising health care costs.

During the three-week strike, the workers resolve and courage inspired students and others to take their own actions to support the workers and their strike.

When negotiations between Local 26 and Harvard began, the union had two priorities–win a guaranteed wage of $35,000 for full-time employees and hold the line on health care cost increases that Harvard was proposing.

Many of Harvard’s dining hall workers don’t work for long stretches of the year because most university dining halls are closed during the summer and winter breaks.

That means that workers have to endure long stretches of time when they have no income.

To make matters worse, dining hall workers can’t draw unemployment compensation when they’re laid off because Harvard is a non-profit organization and is not required to make unemployment insurance contributions.

The higher out-of-pocket health care costs that Harvard was seeking would make the dining hall workers’ financial situation even more precarious and make health care less accessible.

In an Op Ed column that appeared in the New York Times, Rosa Rivera, a 17-year Harvard dining hall worker, explained how increased co-pays proposed by Harvard would affect her and other strikers.

Rivera recently canceled a doctor’s appointment to have a spot on a lung checked for cancer. She did so because her daughter failed a hearing test and will need surgery to correct the problem, and if Harvard raised co-pays as it proposed, Rivera wouldn’t be able to afford both procedures.

For Rivera, the new collective bargaining agreement won by the strike means that she will have one less hard choice to make.

But before the strike began, one hard choice that Rivera and other dining hall workers had to make was whether to go on strike if they didn’t get a fair contract.

There was no guarantee that the sacrifices that they would make during the three-week strike would pay off.

When the strike began, Harvard took a hard line toward the strikers. The administration refused to budge on the contract offer that the dining hall workers had already rejected.

The university administration appeared to be counting on the possibility that the workers’ resolve would weaken after they missed a few paychecks.

But the workers remained united and took the offensive.

On October 14, workers demonstrated their resolve by staging a sit-in at Harvard Square. Their act of civil disobedience resulted in the arrest of nine workers.

The civil disobedience and subsequent arrests put the university on the defensive and galvanized support for the  workers among students, faculty, and the community.

Students and faculty signed support petitions, the Boston city council passed a unanimous resolution supporting the strike, and the Boston Globe wrote an editorial supporting the workers.

A week later on October 22, 1000 people including union members and their supporters marched from Harvard to the Cambridge City Hall in a steady rain to demand a fair contract for the dining hall workers.

That march led to an even more important show of support Monday, October 24 when hundreds of students walked out of their classes and occupied the school’s administration building demanding a fair contract for the workers.

By this time, it was clear that the Harvard administration was isolated and its choices were limited.

It could continue to resist the workers’ demands and face more disruptions and unwanted publicity or meet the workers’ demands, which could be done at a reasonable cost to the university.

On Tuesday, Lang announced that the union and Harvard had reached a tentative agreement and declared victory.

“We are pleased to announce that we have reached a tentative agreement with Harvard University that our Bargaining Committee believes addresses all of the concerns of our more than 700 members on strike,” said Lang in statement issued by the union. “Our strike will continue until all members on strike have a chance to review the agreement and vote to ratify.”

After the members ratified the new contract by a near unanimous vote on Wednesday, Lang had another message for members: “We will see the Harvard community back at work Thursday!”

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