Lobster Over Wage Raises?
The Harvard Club of Boston is a private institution whose members include Harvard graduates, student, faculty, and family members. It is not affiliated with Harvard University, but the university hosts many events there, including a “Saturday of Symposia” with President Faust last December. For more than a hundred years, it has been an institution for the elite of the elite. The Harvard Club of Boston has two locations, the main club in the Back Bay and a smaller location in the Financial District. The main location has hotel rooms, banquet halls, squash courts, and conference rooms for business and social functions. 240 people work there as housekeepers, servers, front desk attendants, and cooks.
These workers are represented by UNITE HERE Local 26, the same union that represents Harvard’s dining hall workers. Like Harvard’s workers, Harvard Club workers have spent the majority of 2011—and now 2012—bargaining a new contract with management. However, unlike the university’s dining hall workers, they have been met with an unbelievable lack of respect for the bargaining process on the part of Club management.
Last summer, we attended several bargaining sessions at the invitation of the workers. We were appalled by management’s disrespectful attitude toward the workers’ negotiating committee. Many of the Club’s employees are immigrants who support families in multiple countries, and they are asking for nothing unreasonable—just enough to get by. Given the physical and mental demands of service work, it is unacceptable that some of them must take second jobs to pay for their medical bills and their kids’ clothing and food.
According to data provided directly by management to the union, of the 240 workers, fewer than 90 have health insurance through the Club. According to data from the Mass. Division of Health Care Finance and Policy, 57 club employees and another 76 of their dependants receive taxpayer-subsidized public healthcare. Furthermore, 68 percent were paid less than $30,000 in 2010, of whom 43 percent were paid less than $10,000.
Given that the Harvard Club continues to host extravagant events such as the “Champagne and Sparkling Wine Walkaround,” and taking into account the high cost of living in Boston, we believe that times are tougher for the workers than they are for the management. When some 35 workers visited a meeting of the club’s Board of Governors in October to ask for the Board’s intervention, we found that group of influential Harvard alumni enjoying sushi in a wood-paneled room.
Some months ago, the Club, in a stunning example of arrogance, attempted to charge the union a fee for holding negotiations at the Club. (Several months later, the Club cancelled this bill). They were, though, kind enough to include a menu featuring a $46-per-person lobster strudel lunch with the bill and suggested that the workers order from it while bargaining. During this time, they refused to propose even small wage increases to the workers.
We have witnessed bargaining sessions in which the club has engaged in regressive bargaining—reducing wage or benefit proposals they had previously themselves proposed. For example, several months ago the Club responded to a reasonable wage proposal the union had presented as a compromise, by lowering their own previous proposal. Also, from February through August 2011, management repeatedly refused to share important financial information, leading the National Labor Relations Board to issue a federal complaint against the club in October for “failing and refusing to bargain collectively.”
Adding insult to injury, Club employees have alleged in a recently filed class-action lawsuit that the Club has pocketed gratuities added to each Club bill and has also kept a significant percentage of contributions made by Club members to the employees’ annual holiday fund. The allegation that the Club’s management appears to have been acting deceptively toward its members and deprive its workers of much-needed income only underscores the unsavory nature of labor relations at this institution.
Although the Club is not legally affiliated with the University, it bears the Harvard name and draws most of its membership from the faculty and student body. As students, we have in the past called on our university to practice responsibility and transparency in its relations with workers and community members.
The Harvard Club is not exempt from these values, and we would be embarrassed to belong to a Club that shows such blatant disregard for its workforce. Thus, the Harvard administration should put pressure on the Club’s board to demand that the club promptly settle a fair contract in good faith.
Iman E. James ’12 is a women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Dudley House. William P. Whitham ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Dudley House. Karen A. Narefsky ’11 was a romance languages and literatures concentrator. They are all members of the Student Labor Action Movement.