On Monday, hundreds of Harvard University students walked out of class for the second time in seven days, demanding that the school settle with the 750 dining hall workers who went on strike earlier this month after negotiations failed over health care and annual income. The strike is now entering its third week.
“I will not go back to work until this is over,” Anabela Pappas, a pantry steward and Harvard employee since 1981, told Jezebel. “I have nothing to lose. If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t have the insurance. I’d be in the same position I’m in now.”
Harvard University Dining Services workers have picketed outside the university’s dining halls daily, the Boston Globe reports, while Senator Elizabeth Warren and actor Ben Stiller have made appearances on the picket lines. Some of the dining halls have been closed, and some are still open—staffed by managers, non-union workers, and temporary employees.
Both university administrators and union officials have accused each other of failing to negotiate in good faith. The parties met for the first time in a week last Monday, after hundreds of Harvard College and Divinity School students marched in support of the strike. “They’re not just punishing the workers,” Pappas said, referring to the university’s refusal to grant the union’s demands. “They’re punishing the students, too.”
Organizers and activists characterized Monday’s walkout as even larger than last week’s. In a text message, Pappas said she estimated there were “1,000s” of people demonstrating, and dozens of students and workers gathered in the lobby of the administrative building where negotiations have been held. “Students are sitting down while we meeting with administers [sic.],” Pappas wrote.
According to UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents the dining staff, half of Harvard’s dining services workers earn less than $35,000 a year, despite the university maintaining a $62 million operating surplus at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. The dining hall workers have been negotiating for an annual income of at least $35,000 and against a new health plan.
“Harvard is the richest university in the nation, with a $35 billion endowment,” one striking worker, Rosa Ines Rivera, wrote in an essay for the New York Times today. “But I can’t live on what Harvard pays me.”
Medical students analyzed Harvard’s proposal and found that the cost of premiums alone could eat up almost 10 percent of my income. And Harvard wants to increase our co-pays for every single doctor visit to $25, from $15, for primary care and to $100, from zero, for outpatient hospital care and some tests. Some costs would be reimbursed for lower-income workers, but out-of-pocket expenses would still be hard to meet.
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.
In 2002, the university agreed to pay low-income workers a living wage, largely as a result of pressure from the union. However, according to Harvard Magazine, because dining-hall employees don’t work year-round, their annual incomes are still less than what is necessary to support a family in the Boston area—despite being paid more than their peers at other local cafeterias.
Police arrested a small group of women for blocking traffic in Harvard Square on Friday, including 55-year-old Dora Gladys Romero, who had been worried about the possible consequences of going on strike. “You don’t know what we’re walking into,” she told Public Radio International.
Both she and Any Montoya, 32, say they had never done anything like that before.
“It was scary, of course,” Montoya says. “But I didn’t feel alone. I feel that I could do it, and I did.”
Montoya says she went to a few protests during her college years back in Colombia, where she grew up. But those demonstrations turned violent and she didn’t want to take the risk. She says she joined the group of women to block traffic on Friday to send a message to the university, to show that striking dining hall workers were not powerless.
“Obviously, it was no violence. We are not criminals,” she adds. “We’re just speaking up.”
The charges against Romero, Montoya and seven other workers were dropped. But they will still have arrest records.
Union representatives were scheduled to sit down with administration officials—and mediators—at noon on Sunday, Pappas told Jezebel, but the university kept pushing back the meeting until they presented a proposal hours later, at 8:30 that night. “Even the mediators said, ‘That’s just crappy,’” Pappas said. “It was the same thing they had before, just repackaged.” She continued: “We’re not here to play—people want to go back to work! We need health care. We’re hungry.”
Harvard did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Jezebel. In a statement to the Crimson this weekend, university spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga said, “Harvard deeply values the contributions of its dining services employees.”