By Ellen McGirt
October 25, 2016

Harvard University and its striking food service workers reached a “tentative agreement” early this morning, reports Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson. The union that represents the dining staff says that the new deal “accomplished all their goals,” and will be sent to a bargaining subcommittee for review today. The strike had just entered its third, very public, week.

The strike had become more than a public relations nightmare for Harvard. It has revealed, once again, the vulnerable state of low-income people who are indispensable parts of our largest institutions and corporations, yet are unable to make the kind of progress that hard work is supposed to guarantee.

At issue is a minimum salary of $35,000 and affordable health care: According to the UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents the workers, half of Harvard’s dining services workers earn less than $35,000 a year, despite a $62 million operating surplus. The union is fighting against proposed changes in their health care plan that would make it out of reach for many members.

The workers have repeatedly brought their case to the students, which has created a strong alliance. “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,” wrote two law students in the Harvard Law Record. “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.”

Just three days ago, students from colleges around Boston joined with Harvard students, other supporters, and union members in a massive protest that stopped traffic as they marched through the streets to Cambridge City Hall. Yesterday, hundreds of Harvard students walked out of class for the second time in a week, demanding a settlement from the school. A significant number waited outside while the talks continued into the wee hours.

And the students have played a key role in crunching the numbers. Yesterday, a worker with seventeen years of service named Rosa Ines Rivera, penned an op-ed for The New York Times:

“The students say that Harvard’s proposal is unaffordable for nearly all of us according to state government guidelines. If it goes through, I will keep avoiding the doctor to save that money for my kids’ co-pays. Any increase puts me at the breaking point.

Harvard is the richest university in the nation, with a $35 billion endowment. But I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom. I grew up in the projects and on welfare. I want my 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to climb out of the cycle of poverty. But for most of my time at Harvard it’s been hard.”

The Boston area has a long history of racial discord and inequality that, like most cities, extends into systems that continue today. Harvard has an opportunity to address a small piece of that, and I hope they do. But it will be worth watching how this alliance will affect the many future leaders who have just learned the name of the ‘buffalo chicken wrap guy,’ while looking across an abundant table only to discover that not everybody is getting their fair share. That sounds like the education of a lifetime.


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