All Quiet on the Kitchen Front?

Thelma, Pat, John and the other Lowell House dining hall workers sit around playing gin rummy. It is about 3 p.m., the period of calm between lunch and the dinner rush. Between hands they talk--about their lives, their union, the way they perceive Harvard--as the steadily humming kitchen fan helped relieve the late spring heat.

Before you could ask the question they respond in mock-serious voices: "We hate our jobs, the kids here are all snobs, we don't get paid enough, and they work us like slaves!" Then they laugh. "Is that what you wanted to know?" someone says. Then she smiles, "No... It's not true. We love our jobs, we really do." The other dining hall workers sitting around the table nod in agreement, each adding a sentence or two praising Harvard's management and its students.

The workers are not necessarily typical. Dining halls are actually one of the more troublesome areas of Harvard's labor relations. Nonetheless, it's perhaps easy to understand why these particular workers praise Harvard. Each has his or her own standard by which to judge the University, based on past employment experiences as waitresses, bellhops or windowwashers. Lowell House, with its lazy afternoons and glistening chandeliers, may be a pleasant change.

Thelma Massey, for instance, one of the main checkers in Lowell House, has been at Harvard for 13 years and says she hasn't regretted a day of it. Born and raised in this area, Thelma had been a cook her entire life. She recalls all too well the days she spent behind a door in a roadside cafe marked "employees only," hovering over a hot stove, bustling to prepare food for impatient customers. "When you're cooking you have someone rush in who wants a steak in maybe ten minutes, and the most you can finish it in is 15 or 20. You got someone on your back all day long," Thelma says. Also, her jobs before coming to Harvard offered her little security, scanty vacations, and no health care. So Thelma is not complaining. Nor, unlike some of her counterparts, is she much interested in becoming actively involved in union affairs. Compared to her past jobs, working at Harvard has been a blessing to her, less hectic and less physically wearing. Thelma will never say Harvard is unfair to her--not with the memory of the cramped cafe in the back of her mind.

Pat Logan feels the same way. Until a year or two ago, Pat worked as a waitress--a "legrunner," she says--and depended entirely on tips for her income. The insecurity of this livelihood was a constant source of tension and frustration. Now, at Harvard, she is not complaining either--the pay is steady, the work is not too strenuous, the hours aren't too long, the Harvard health plan provides insurance against debilitating medical costs, she gets paid during vacations and she likes her co-workers.


This shift starts each day at 10:30 a.m. and ends at 7:45 p.m. These hours disrupt some family activities, but these workers say it's a fair exchange for the job's other benefits. The two-week paid vacation for Christmas is perhaps the greatest luxury. In the summer, the University offers many dining hall workers summer jobs in other departments. Usually, they work as custodians for the dormitories and Houses occupied by summer school students, since most of the dorm-crew students on financial aid aren't around. Those dining hall workers who don't get jobs receive unemployment insurance--a fact neither Thelma, Pat nor John likes to admit.

These workers say that the attitude of the students' goes far to make the jobs pleasant. "There's not one student I wouldn't want living in this House," Thelma says. "These kids are so appreciative. Just the other day. I fixed the milk machine for a boy, I thought he had gone and sat down, when he suddenly came up and thanked me." Pat agrees. "There's more closeness in this House than in the other Houses--it's like one big happy family." She disappears into the kitchen and returns a moment later with a plain pink card bearing the inscription, "To the dining hall staff for cooking up all those good times! THANK YOU! Tom (Trouble) Quint and Tony (T) Brown." The manager of the Lowell House kitchen, Mrs. Daley, says, "Kids come in late and we have open house. I don't mind it, though. Some of these kids aren't as financially well-off and they can't afford to eat out." Thelma recently received an invitation to St. Louis to attend the wedding of a former House resident. Thelma says she would have loved to have gone, but she had to work that weekend.

John, Pat's son, who seems to be in his early twenties, sits quietly at the end of the table throughout the conversation, less eager to laud Harvard for its kindness and generosity. "At Eliot and Kirkland House, it's different than it is here," he says. "Over there they treat you like nothing. The kids come in and they don't even speak. They ignore you. They just point or grunt to let you know what they want," he says. The other workers seem disconcerted by this statement. "Well, it's true at some of these other Houses, students make you feel like...well, like you're working for them," Pat says. But before anyone else can respond to John's criticism, the others break out in praise for Harvard and Lowell House. Then John says, "They got the system in this House worked out real nice. I can stay in the back when the kids come, and I don't have to get them anything, except when something runs out or breaks down."

It is difficult to determine which aspects of the work at Harvard the kitchen workers value more: the material benefits that Harvard offers compared to some other employers, or the psychological benefits of working with a group of appreciative students. Both seem important. For instance, the dining hall workers say they find students' jokes and complaints about the quality of the food upsetting. The workers say the often University dieticians determine the menus and the individual dining hall staffs have no control over what is served. Also, they say, students shoud understand the problems of preparing such massive quantities, particularly under Food Service's budget constraints.

The presence of students on financial aid has made an impression on these Lowell kitchen worker. It is--to them--a sign that Harvard does not cater only to the rich, and they do not see Harvard strictly as an elite institution open only to the offspring of the wealthy. "I think anybody who works hard can get in," Thelma says. "I think it's fair in that respect. I know many kids who have to work everyday and go to classes, too, and that's not easy." Pat adds, "Even the rich kids don't make a big show about it. And some of their parents make them work."

A fellow worker, a Greek immigrant, joins the card-playing group for a few moments and when he leaves, the conversation switches from a discussion of the students to the working relationships back in the kitchen. A considerable number of the dining hall workers are Greek, Puerto Rican or Portuguese, many of whom speak only a little English. According to this group of Lowell workers, there is little tension among the different ethnic groups, despite the communication gaps. There is, however, an understandable tendency toward a self-imposed segregation during the leisure hours, as workers cluster at tables with those who speak their language. And, according to the American-born employees the workers who cannot converse with the students tend to be the most resentful at work.

The subject of strikes seems to be taboo among the kitchen workers--at least when outsiders are within earshot. Thelma shies away from discussing a skirmish between kitchen employees and the University a few years ago, and she quickly asserts that the incident was just a little misunderstanding that had been all straightened out. On the other hand, John says, "we can't strike. It's not in the contract. We had a big argument about that." Most kitchen workers decline to talk about the possibility of a kitchen workers' strike similar to the one at Yale last fall. Union issues cause a good deal of dissension among the workers. The younger, more vociferous employees tend to take a more strident stance in their dealings with the University while the older, more settled group is less willing to rock the boat and risk sacrificing the relative security they have gained. With a high unemployment rate, the fear of losing a steady, respectable source of income breeds caution: 1978 is not the time to gamble.

The card game winds down as dinner time nears. John starts talking about how he want to enlist in the Marines. They were the ones that won the war against Germany and the one against Korea, too, he says. The Marines are tough, demanding; they have pride. That reminds Thelma of a story about her sister-in-law's nephew who worked himself up to the position of colonel "and didn't go to military school or anything." The conversation and the card game end and students troop into the dining hall, clamoring for food.