In an upstairs bedroom in her Everett, Mass. home, Jacqueline Medeiros is awake before the sun. It’s 4:30 a.m., and the rest of her house is sleeping, but Medeiros has a full day ahead of her.
Medeiros leaves the house an hour later, her sons Jordan, 11, and Jathan, 6, still fast asleep. She stops at Dunkin Donuts for a medium coffee with extra sugar. By 6 a.m., Medeiros has parked in the Cowperthwaite Street Garage and walked to Leverett House.
It is Oct. 2, Medeiros’s first day back on the job as a Harvard University Dining Services employee. She has spent the last month working with UNITE HERE Local 26, the Boston-based union representing HUDS employees. While Harvard and the union met at the bargaining table to hammer out a new contract in September, Medeiros participated in negotiations on the side of Local 26, which has sought higher wages and the maintenance of its current healthcare plan. Now that she’s back, it’s time to fill yogurt containers.
Medeiros preps for breakfast until 8 a.m., when she gets a 30-minute break. Preparing granola, filling bagged lunch orders, and stacking bowls for cereal are all part of the early HUDS shift, which runs from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. A later shift runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
By 8:30 in the morning, Medeiros is mixing salads. “It feels good,” she says, as she pours a cabbage mixture into a container of iceberg lettuce. “I missed my coworkers.”
Medeiros was one of three University employees who took a month of leave to work with Local 26, which represents employees across various Massachusetts hospitality industries. The union and Harvard have been negotiating since the spring—and it hasn’t gone well. After months of tense back and forth, Local 26 announced in September that HUDS workers intended to strike if a settlement on health benefits and wages did not come to fruition. On Sept. 15, when HUDS employees’ contracts expired, they voted overwhelmingly—591 to 18—to strike if they did not come to an agreement with Harvard soon.
The union kept its word. On Oct. 5, HUDS employees went on strike for the first time in more than 30 years, and for the first time ever during the academic year. Early that morning, the employees gathered by the dozens in the dark near Annenberg Hall. They have not reported to work in the dining halls since.
Despite the decision to strike, Medeiros and many employees are unwaveringly loyal to Harvard.
“I love working for Harvard,” she says. “I’ve been there for so long that we know everybody. It’s like a second home away from our home.”
And thanks, in part, to the efforts of dining service employees like Medeiros, Harvard’s Houses–especially their dining halls–feel like home to many students, too.
Medeiros has worked at Harvard for 25 years. Though the length of her tenure is especially impressive, it’s not uncommon for employees to work long stints at the University, sometimes even for decades. The average HUDS employee works at Harvard for 12 years.
So what does 12 years with HUDS look like?
For some HUDS employees, the job is a family affair. “I had just turned 16 the same day that I was hired,” Anabela Pappas, who now works in Cabot and Pforzheimer dining halls, says. Pappas’s father worked in a dish room at Harvard, and she grew up listening to his stories about connecting with students from all over the country. Those stories inspired Pappas to apply.
HUDS managers were reluctant to hire a minor, but Pappas was persistent and managed to land a position. At first, HUDS offered her a menial desk job, but she knew she wanted to work with food. “I never left,” she says, 35 years later. “It’s what I like to do.”
Pappas isn’t the only employee who started working for HUDS at a young age, nor is she the only employee with a parent who HUDS employed. Medeiros’s mother worked for HUDS in Adams House, and helped her daughter get a job with HUDS when she was 18 years old. Medeiros began as a part-time employee, but moved to a six-day position while she was still a teenager.
Twenty-five years later, Medeiros still waxes nostalgic about those early years at HUDS. Working for Harvard then came with unexpected perks—complimentary Red Sox tickets for the family and turkeys on Thanksgiving. Medeiros feels that the University is less generous towards HUDS employees now than it was when she was hired. “It’s not like how it was,” she says.
Medeiros works 40 hours per week in a position reserved for qualified senior employees. She is quick to respond when asked if she would ever consider another job: “I would never leave.”
Both Medeiros and Pappas believe Harvard is a special place to work because of both the students and fellow HUDS employees. Medeiros met the father of her children when he was working part-time for HUDS. Pappas met her husband, Chris, when they were both working at the Freshman Union (now the Barker Center) in the summer of 1987.
When asked about the story of how he met Bela, Chris lights up. “Are you ready?” he asks, raising his eyebrows and glancing at his wife. “It’s gonna take five minutes.”
Chris first caught a glimpse of his future wife through a porthole window on a swinging door inside the Freshman Union. When he finally got up the courage to ask her on a date two years later, Bela had to tell her strict parents that she was going to a friend’s birthday party rather than out with him.
The couple took a walk on Revere Beach. Twenty-nine years later, Chris still gets giggly when he remembers their first kiss. “She whips me around and plants a big one on me!” he remembers, looking at his wife and laughing.
“No matter how tough the day I’m having, no matter what life throws at me, I know when I’m going home to my wife I’m keeping my eye on the prize,” Chris says. “It’s a good life.”
Like Medeiros, Chris and Bela Pappas say they would never consider leaving Harvard. Chris did depart for 16 years, in 1998, when he opened his own chain of healthy food restaurants. But he eventually returned because he missed his co-workers and the students. And, he says, he liked that the job gave him union membership.
“There’s a lot of strength we have with the union… it’s a good support system, so the difference between going out is you won’t have that support system—it’s employment at will out there,” he says.
After 16 years away, Chris says it was “time to come back home.”
Ed Childs and his shock of white hair stand out in a sea of red t-shirts at a rally on Sept. 30. His sweatshirt reads “Never surrender.” Other attendees, from students to faculty members, are chanting alongside HUDS employees to show their support for a potential strike.
“What do we want?” Childs shouts into the megaphone he is holding.
“Justice!” the crowd responds.
This is not the first time that Childs has seen labor unrest at Harvard. A 40-year HUDS veteran, Childs has been a union leader—acting as a liaison between Local 26 and the University—since he started working at age 24.
Childs says that this union membership is an integral part of HUDS employment, allowing dining hall staff to negotiate with the University and develop strong relationships with students.
HUDS has been connected with the same union since Harvard’s dining service employees first organized in the 1930s. While it has changed names more than once over the last 80 years, Local 26 has represented HUDS since 1937, when it was known as Local 186.
HUDS employees’ contracts come up for re-negotiation every five years, and the process rarely goes smoothly.
The union wrestled with university officials for the first time in 1939, when according to the Boston Globe, HUDS employees demanded higher wages and the abolition of compulsory insurance premiums, premiums employees are legally mandated to purchase.
The last time HUDS engaged in a full-blown strike was 1983. This one lasted no more than a day, and took place during the summer months, when classes were not in session. The core issue was Harvard’s attempt to contract outside dining service employees.
“Employees felt that we deserved more and we were gonna fight for it, and we did,” Childs, who led rallies and protests in the 1983 strike, says. Following the strike and a sit-in in the Holyoke Center, the University reached a settlement with the union.
HUDS employees also participated in a sit-in in 2001, when a variety of Harvard employees staged the Living Wage Campaign, an effort to secure a university-wide minimum wage $10.25 per hour. During the sit-in, protesters occupied Massachusetts Hall.
The Living Wage Campaign sit-in lasted for three weeks and caught national media attention. Ultimately, protesters achieved their goal: Employees settled new contracts and were granted wages above Cambridge’s living wage level.
This year’s strike is unprecedented, lasting far longer than any HUDS strike in the past—and, for the first time ever, during the academic year.
It is two weeks before the strike and Laquiesha Rainey, a cook in Winthrop House, sits at a table in the dining hall where she works, her two-year-old daughter Madison in a stroller by her side. She worries about being able to provide for Madison on her salary, especially during the three months of the summer that she does not work for HUDS.
Though annual salaries vary between HUDS employees based on time worked, the average salary for a HUDS employee is above the living wage standard as determined by the City of Cambridge. Harvard has specified that the average HUDS employee makes $21.89 per hour while working 37.5 hours over 38 weeks, which, according to Local 26 representatives, amounts to $31,193 per year. According to University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga, though, the average annual salary for a HUDS employee is closer to $34,000. For Cambridge, the living wage is $15.04 per hour. If HUDS employees were paid this wage and worked for 37.5 hours per week, they would only earn $29,328 under a 12-month employment plan.
Indeed, Harvard pays better than most food services employers in the area. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal organization that aggregates labor data per profession, from May 2015 indicates that the annual mean wage for food preparation and serving-related occupations in the Boston metropolitan area was $27,690.
Still, Local 26 contends that some HUDS employees receive less than the reported average HUDS salary, because the University offers a limited number of positions during the summer and holidays. Strikers have pointed to Harvard’s sizable endowment as evidence that the University could offer its employees more.
“Hey Harvard, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side!” and similar chants are popular on picket lines. But Harvard officials contend that the issue isn’t as simple as money in the bank.
“The overwhelming majority of the funds that make up the endowment are restricted to specific programs, departments, or purposes,” deLuzuriaga writes in an email to The Crimson. Endowment funds promised over a period of time or intended for specific purposes are inaccessible for general use.
Striking employees have made three main wage-related demands of Harvard: more opportunities for year-round work, and a baseline $35,000 salary for employees who work year round, and a pay increase over the next five years.
These demands are echoed especially by employees who are not guaranteed summer employment. “They keep addressing our hourly wage and how we get paid more than other universities,” Rainey says, “but they’re not addressing the fact that we don’t get paid for four months out of the year.”
DeLuzuriaga wrote in an email to The Crimson that “Of the approximately 350 HUDS employees who expressed interest in summer employment, 168 were placed.” Summer employment for HUDS workers at Harvard is granted largely based on seniority.
During the negotiations, Harvard offered employees the option of a summer stipend. The University would pay dining staff who are available to work during the summer anywhere between $150 to $250 per week, even if there are no open shifts, depending on that worker’s tenure with the University. Local 26 representatives rejected that offer.
Medeiros is one of the few HUDS employees who qualified for employment in Annenberg, which serves summer school students, this past summer. Anabela Pappas works summers at the Harvard Mail Center, though for less pay than she earns with HUDS.
Rainey, however, has had more difficulty finding employment over the summer. After her first year at HUDS, she worked a few shifts as a cook with a temp agency not associated with Harvard. After her second, she worked with Local 26.
Some employees also point out that their time without work can total up to four or five months. Employees attribute decreases in hours worked to recent cuts in dining hall hours across the University. In the past 15 years, Harvard has lengthened winter and summer breaks, eliminated hot breakfast in the Houses, and closed dining halls over spring break.
Though employees cite these time cuts as grievances, the University maintains that they were necessary. “These decisions were based on the academic needs of our community, and in the context of the overall financial health of the University,” deLuzuriaga writes in an email.
The amount each of the hundreds of HUDS employees works, measured in both hours per day and days per year, varies greatly. Dining halls across Harvard’s campus all operate on slightly different schedules, and certain positions require more or less work time.
Since the strike began on Oct. 5, HUDS employees have had to forgo normal wages in exchange for the compensation Local 26 offers. For a full day of standing on the picket lines, HUDS employees make just $40 per day.
Bela Pappas sits next to her husband in their Somerville, Mass. home, holding a stack of invoices that detail copayments associated with medication for her Type 1 Diabetes. “I can’t even concentrate—like how much is it gonna cost, how much?” she asks.
Bela is anxious about a proposed increase in copays under the new health care Harvard originally offered for 2017.
Under the new plan, copayments would increase for emergency-room visits (from $40 to $100) and hospital inpatient and outpatient services (no copay to $100), while doctor’s office visits would see a smaller increase (from $15 to $20 next year and $25 by 2018).
Like the Pappases, Rainey is particularly anxious about these changes in her health care costs. Rainey has lupus, a chronic disease that requires regular and expensive visits to specialists. For her, the increased copays under the new healthcare plan proposed by Harvard could present a significant expense.
For those without chronic conditions, the new healthcare plan may not pose added costs.
Harvard’s original health care plan for 2017 created an additional tier for employees earning less than $55,000 per year—a change from the 2016 plan whose lowest tier is those making less than $70,000 annually—in which the University would contribute 87 percent of the premium of the lowest-cost plan.
Under the current plan, members of Local 26 qualify for premiums of $91 per month for individuals and $246 per month for families under the Harvard University Group Health Plan. Under Harvard’s new plan, employees would pay $82 per month for individual coverage and $222 per month for family coverage.
Additionally, during the course of negotiations, Harvard made several other offers to “enhance” their proposal. In their proposal, Harvard would also fund a “flexible savings account” of $80 per year in 2018 and 2019, and $40 in 2020. Harvard also offered a second health care option, in which the University would contribute the “equivalent cost of the Harvard University Group Health Plan enrollment premium” to a health insurance plan offered by Local 26.
Local 26 spokesperson Tiffany Ten Eyck wrote in an email that Harvard’s proposals were “unaffordable” for HUDS employees.
When presenting health plans this year, administrators have noted that the average premium increase for 2017 is projected between 6.5 and 7 percent because of rising medical claims and prescription drug costs. Michael E. Chernew, a professor in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, points out that, “As healthcare spending goes up, it puts a lot of pressure on everyone who has to pay. The money has to come from somewhere.”
Chernew acknowledges that it will be difficult to find a plan that both the administration and the workers will accept. With health care costs rising across the nation, someone will have to take on this extra burden. Among others, one larger question remains: “Do we think that more money should be spent on the dining hall employees or not?” he asks.
Anabela Pappas still remembers the year she was voted “Harvard Hero,” a distinction given by the University and reserved for staff members who go “above and beyond.”
Once, Pappas went out of her way to make sure a football player was well-fed. After realizing that he often missed dinner after late practices, Pappas gave the player the kitchen phone number so that he would call if he was running late. Even if she couldn’t stay after hours, she saved him a plate of food.
Years later, at a 10-year reunion, the student recognized Pappas and pointed her out to his wife. “That’s the girl with the number in the locker room, to call if you want food!” he exclaimed. Pappas’s coworkers looked at her in shock. “You gave him your cell phone number?” they asked. Pappas laughs as she recalls the misunderstanding.
Childs, too, recalls bonds with students that seem inevitable given daily, close interactions. After working in Adams House in the 1970s, Childs recounts special relationships with many students. At the time, Adams House was a refuge for BGLTQ students who often faced harassment on campus.
“The bond was very powerful. It wasn’t just friendship, it was also, ‘We’re gonna protect you,’” he says. When homophobic students targeted BGLTQ students living in Adams House, HUDS employees chased harassers away and donned “We’re All Gay” t-shirts in solidarity.
Childs believes that HUDS employees were able to protect Adams House students because their own jobs were secure, thanks to their union membership.
More recently, students of color have also said that HUDS employees make them feel more welcome at a school whose faculty lacks diversity.
Given such relationships, it’s no surprise that many Harvard students have become more involved in employees’ issues.
At the rally held on Sept. 30 in advance of the strike, Itzel L. Vasquez-Rodriguez ’17, a member of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), explains why she decided to support the strike. “The HUDS employees are not fighting for themselves,” she says. “They’re fighting for their families, they’re fighting for their children, they’re fighting so that they can come to work and serve us, the students.”
At the same rally, Lily M. Velona ’18, another SLAM member, helps to put a Local 26 picket sign on the John Harvard statue. She walks alongside employees, faculty members, and student allies both involved in SLAM and otherwise. Velona joins in on chants and distributes Local 26 buttons to the students and tourists standing nearby.
“Students can put themselves out there with a lot less risk, so I think students have a duty to stand up,” Velona says in a brief pause from her work. “I can’t get fired [from] being a student.”
Students have expressed support in a variety of ways, from holding teach-ins in dining halls to signing a petition to participating in a dine-in at the Yard. Other students, however, are either against or impartial to the strike. Students have reported that noise and commotion surrounding the protests, along with dining hall closures, have been unwelcome changes during midterm period.
Many students who do support the strike, though, have been vocal and active in their involvement. Camille E. Traslavina ’18, who has participated in SLAM, supports the strike because she believes in Harvard’s potential. “I love Harvard and what I believe that it can be,” she says. “I think right now it’s not living up to the standards that a lot of us hold it to, so we’re asking Harvard to be better.”
On Oct. 5, Jacqueline Medeiros is up before the sun again. Her morning drive is the same route and her Dunkin Donuts order the same coffee, but this day is clearly a departure from her normal routine.
On most days, only the 6 a.m.-shift employees arrive so early. Today, almost all HUDS employees are parked outside the Harvard dining halls. They stream through the Yard and down Dewolfe Street, sipping hot coffee as they wait for the sun to rise.
Today, HUDS employees will not fill yogurt containers. They will not prepare granola, stack cereal bowls, or mix salads. Instead, they will gather outside the loading docks of their dining halls, armed with pickets, megaphones, drums, and posters. They are prepared to strike.
At 6 a.m., employees, students, and other rallies begin to march and chant, creating picket lines outside dining hall entrances. Echoes of “Sí, se puede!” and “No justice, no peace!” ring out along the streets of Harvard Square and up to Annenberg Hall.
“We’re excited!” Medeiros exclaims when we catch her on the Leverett picket line. “We’re feeling good!” She’s a blur of energy, hitting an upside down bucket with a spoon and laughing with the employees she marches with.
As employees protest outside the Leverett dining hall, inside, a very different scene is playing out. “Look,” Medeiros says, pointing to the window. A solitary employee, whom Medeiros identifies as her manager, puts on an apron as he begins to set up breakfast.
“He’s wearing an apron!” Medeiros shrieks, laughing. Both Medeiros and her manager are in very different places than they were just one day before.
Later that day, students in Leverett will eat food, prepared by unfamiliar faces, off of plastic plates. Administration representatives will carefully answer emails and mitigate impact while Local 26 employees restock strike supplies. Everyone will feel the impact of the strike.
“There’s a big connection you can make through food,” Chris Pappas says. During this strike, that connection isn’t lost on anyone.