Dining Workers Ratify Contract with Wage Hike

Dining service workers ratified a new contract with Harvard University last night that will raise the wages of all workers, as well as ensuring that no worker employed for more than one year will earn less than $10.25 an hour--the figure set as Cambridge's "living wage."

The agreement came after a week of contentious negotiations between the University and the Local 26 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Union leaders had agreed to strike if an agreement was not reached by Wednesday.

Union officials call the new contract the biggest economic gain for employees in the history of Local 26. Ninety-eight percent of union members at the meeting voted to accept the agreement.

"I think it was a great victory for the workers," said Local 26 President Janice Loux.

The new contract raises wages for the two tiers of employees that make up Harvard University Dining Services--the lower-paid "cash operations" workers who serve at campus restaurants and the "board operations" members who serve in dining halls. For board operations, the increase will be $2.05 per hour hour across the board.

Under the contract, Harvard also agreed to a 10 percent cap on the number of hours worked by "casuals"--temporary employees who do not receive fringe benefits.

The reduction of casual employees was cited by workers as crucial to their job security during negotiations.

There were a number of new clauses in the contract to strengthen the union. The new contract allows for up to four employees to take a one-year leave of absence to work for Local 26, for workers to wear designated union buttons on their uniforms, and for union dues authorization cards to be included in the orientation cards of new employees.

For the first time, domestic partners will qualify as immediate family members for bereavement purposes.

The negotiated wages and benefits will apply even to outsourced employees in the Harvard Business School.

Although the tone at the union meeting at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church last night--where a song with the lyrics "You Can't Scare Me, I'm Sticking to the Union" played on loudspeakers--was celebratory, union members said they had not predicted the talks would turn out so well.

"We were fully expecting to strike and were ready to do it, but we're always glad not to," Loux said.

The ratification vote was originally expected to be a rally to pressure the University for a better contract.

Wednesday's breakthrough nine-hour session with Harvard administrators came after two days of talks that union officials said went badly.

"Harvard came out swinging, proposing pages and pages of take-aways," Chief Shop Steward of Harvard Local 26 and Adams House chef Edward Childs wrote in an e-mail.

After continued threats to strike, though, Harvard returned with a "take it or leave it" offer that the union negotiating committee unanimously endorsed.

Union officials said they attribute much of their success to the efforts of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) for Harvard workers. As a result of the PSLM sit-in and union negotiations, they said, fewer workers will be paid less than a living wage.

The benefits of the new contract extend to workers in the Science Center's Greenhouse Café, like Henry Rodrigues.

"I no longer feel like a poor worker," Rodrigues said. "I think it's terrific, though they could have given us a little more."