The HUDS Strike: A Year in Review

Reflection on the historic HUDS strike last fall

Bleeding Crimson

One brisk Wednesday morning in October last year, I woke up at six. The rest of the world still hadn’t shaken off the night, shadows of the day before still looming dark in the sky above me. Everything was still, and I kept thinking about that silence, the way it wrapped around my body, heavy with anticipation as I flew down five flights of stairs and rushed to the back of Annenberg. I fastened the pin to my hoodie and sought out a sign, hoping I wasn’t late.

I wasn’t. The HUDS workers had just begun to assemble themselves in a circle, strapping fluorescent orange Home Depot buckets to their necks like armor, steeling themselves with drumsticks in one hand and picket signs in the other. They began to march, chanting in both Spanish and English. Reporters arrived and the area was suddenly swarming with cameras, people vying to get a quote from the workers on strike or their supporters. All the while, members of the Student Labor Action Movement handed out flowers to strikers as a sign of solidarity.

And that silence? It vanished quickly, and for a long time. For 22 days silence, hung its hat in the dining hall and picked up a bullhorn. The strike became the talk of the town, and wherever you were on campus, there was sure to be discussion of it in some way, shape or form—why Harvard was being unnecessarily greedy and heartless, why the HUDS workers were “interrupting midterms”, how much noise the strike made, how food options were thinning due to safety or monetary concerns.

As HUDS workers continued to put their financial security in jeopardy in fighting this noble cause, the stakes rose and the picket signs were held even higher. Students organized demonstrations, left in the middle of classes to show support, staged a sit-in in the lobby of 124 Mt. Auburn St. Tensions were high, and many wondered how long this would last, if the HUDS workers could continue these arduous efforts to proclaim their rights and if Harvard could continue to ignore the pleas of their suffering workers.

Then, one day, it was all over. News of the strike’s end and the agreement reached between Local 26 and University representatives broke, and a sigh of relief rippled throughout the University. Paper plates were replaced with trays, and John came back to greet freshman in Annenberg with a campus-wide smile spread across his face—but something was off. No, it wasn’t that smile, nor the motivation of the strike, nor the return to the routine.

It was the agreement in and of itself. It took Harvard 22 days (or really longer, considering the discussions were in the works before the strike was decided upon) to reach the conclusion that these workers deserved livable wages and affordable healthcare. Their original proposals would have been a significant burden on the average worker making $35,000 a year (which was not even the minimum before the strike). As the most influential university in the world, it is disheartening that it took so long to reach this conclusion. HUDS workers played and continue to play a valuable role in shaping the way in which community develops within dining halls throughout campus. The implications of the time taken to make the right decision had a staggering effect on many of the HUDS families involved in the strike. Although the compromise did include many of the original demands or modified versions of them, such as lowered co-pay rates, eliminated deductibles, a modest raise, and prorated stipends, the families suffered a little over a month without any health care and experienced job insecurity because they had the courage to speak out against an unjust system. Harvard’s decision was the right one, but at a time which should have come sooner.

When the decision was announced outside of the First Parish Church, the relief felt by the HUDS workers in the crowd was tangible and heavy. Olga, a veteran Portuguese HUDS worker in Annenberg and a new friend, turned to me with tears brimming in her eyes. With a month’s time of weariness snuggled tight between her thick coat and scarf, she softened, shoulders laxing under the strain of buckets and bullhorns, 6 a.m. marches and weeks of fighting for a just cause. She had won.

Though I don’t see John or Olga much these days, I’m reminded of their struggle every day when I walk into the dining hall and see smiling faces decked in orange, looking back at me. I’m reminded of their struggle when I speak to my own mother, a former cafeteria worker in a school for seven years. HUDS’ win transcends the Harvard campus and will act as a template for all other schools around the nation—maybe even my mother’s as well.

Jessenia N. Class ’20, is a Crimson Editorial editor in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.


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