On Wednesday, October 5 the Harvard University Dining Staff (HUDS) went on strike after negotiations between Harvard University and the HUDS union, UNITE HERE Local 26, failed. Since June 2016, Local 26 had been attempting to negotiate a new contract with Harvard University before the previous contract expired in September. Talks broke down over the union’s demands for a consistent salary and affordable health care. Early on, HUDS workers have been vocal about their need for a living wage that allows for workers to take of their families. Since the negotiations failed, workers, along with students and staff who support their demands, have been marching across Harvard University and Harvard Square to bring attention to their demands.

The breakdown of these negotiations comes against the backdrop of Harvard University completing a recent fundraising campaign. At the end of the summer of 2016, the University surpassed its fundraising goal for the year by bringing in $7 billion. Compared to such a figure, the workers’ demands for minimum wage and affordable health care are modest.

Although HUDS workers are a valuable part of the Harvard institution, the University has a troubling history when it comes to responding to workers’ needs. On the issue of health care, the union is concerned that the health care plan offered by the University requires more expensive co-pays for employees. The University has offered a number of different plans, but the union has rejected each one. The rising costs of health care and the cuts in the insurance plan mean that workers would continue to make the difficult choice to pay for healthcare or pay for other expenses.

The University submitted a counter offer for wages to the union, but it was rejected because it would not provide workers with a consistent wage throughout the calendar year. HUDS workers earn an hourly wage of $22 and the University has offered to increase it to $24 over the course of five years. Yet this offer does not take into consideration that workers do not have steady full time work throughout the year. Without steady hours, a higher hourly wage offers limited ability to meet the needs of the workers. The University did offer a summer stipend, but workers say that this offer is too low to meet their demands.

In the national discourse of labor needs, pay is a primary concern. In 2015, an Economic Policy Institute Report found that minimum wage employees could not make ends meet in the cities where they live. The report found that the average cost of living in the United States is $65,000 per year for a family of four (two working adults and two children). This number changed based on location, but even in the least expensive locales, minimum wage workers did not earn enough to meet the average cost of living. With expenses increasing for basic necessities like health care, housing, and food, HUDS workers want the opportunity to negotiate a living wage that makes it worthwhile for them to continue working.

These pay issues also resonate with issues concerning pay gaps across gender and race in the workplace. At a law school event prior to the strike, HUDS workers noted that within their ranks women make up 90 per cent of the workers in the lowest paid jobs. Women of color under 40 make $11,000 less than the average HUDS worker, and men of color make $7,000 less.

In the lead up to the strike, students collaborated with workers to bring awareness about the strike. Students at the undergraduate level have created Facebook events illustrating ways students can support the workers including dine-ins with the workers. During a dine-in, students show their support at meal times by sharing a meal with a worker on strike.

Harvard University, which is often at the fore of solutions to today’s problems, has a chance to step up and show that they care about all members of the Harvard community. HUDS workers are an integral part of the University and deserve fair treatment.  Their demands for consistent pay should be heard and respected. HUDS workers want to go back to work, but only with the dignity and assurance that their work will enable them to provide for their families.

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Esther Agbaje is a 3L at HLS, and she is from Minnesota. She is interested in public interest law focused on infrastructure, energy, housing, and civil rights. She is active in Harvard’s Black Law Student Association, HLS Democrats, and the Harvard African Law Association. She is also a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Before coming to law school, she managed rule of law projects for the U.S. Department of State in the Middle East with a country focus on Egypt. Esther has a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

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