Redefining Sustainability

Yesterday, hundreds of Harvard’s dining hall workers, security guards, and custodians marched through Harvard Yard demanding “sustainable jobs.”

All three of these groups of workers are negotiating union contracts with the University this fall. In their contract negotiations with the University, workers have asked for more than wage raises or better benefits. Instead, Harvard’s employees have asked that the University embrace a new movement that defines “sustainability” not only in terms of the environment, but in terms of jobs.

Despite contractual wage increases, the average Harvard dining hall worker lost $900 in wages, between the past academic year and the one before, due to working fewer hours, according to the Student Labor Action Movement. These losses significantly affect workers already straining to afford food and rent, at rising prices.

Most dining hall workers are laid off during the summer and during J-term, and struggle to find summer jobs. However, many hour cuts have taken place during the school year itself, leaving dining hall workers with less than full-time work at Harvard. They must find second jobs or depend on other income just to pay their rent or raise their kids. Their jobs at Harvard are not sustainable ways of living.

Moreover, Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services cuts these hours by employing practices which are environmentally unsustainable. Dining hall workers report that the University purchases an increasing amount of packaged and pre-prepared food, which is cut, baked, or cooked off-site and shipped to Harvard pre-made.

Not only does this necessitate the environmentally unfriendly costs of packaging and transportation, it also reduces the amount of work that Harvard’s dining hall workers must do to prepare food, which separates them from the food production process and reduces the number of hours they can work.

So, as they explained in a leaflet handed to incoming freshmen on move-in day this fall, entitled “Sustainable Food and Sustainable Jobs,” participating workers are asking that tasks like cutting vegetables and baking bread be brought back in-house to increase workers’ hours and make the dining hall food as sustainable—and fresh and tasteful—as it used to be.

The relationship between the labor movement and the green movement has been rocky at times in the past. For example, in the interest of job creation, the Teamsters union supported President Bush’s plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2004. Similarly, the United Auto Workers has opposed proposals to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for cars, fearing that increased production prices will lead to job losses.

This tension stems in part from the perception of the green movement as privileged, elitist, and removed from the realities of working class life. Today, though, coalitions like the BlueGreen Alliance advocate for “green jobs,” and organizations such as Labor Network for Sustainability seek to inspire those in the labor movement about environmental issues.

At the same time, sustainability activist groups, especially those which focus on students, have begun revising the traditional definition of “sustainability” to incorporate workers’ rights.  For example, Real Food Challenge, a student movement to redefine “real” food as food which “nourishes producers, consumers, communities, and the earth,” includes the wellbeing of both farm workers and food service workers as part of its definition of real food. Harvard’s Food Literacy Project and HUHDS both plan to sponsor events for Food Day, which presses for sustainable and humane food to “support fair conditions for food and farm workers.”

Harvard’s workers are currently engaged in one of the first campaigns to unite the environmental movement and the labor movement on college campuses. Now, workers who want to prepare and serve high-quality food serve as the strongest advocates for greener dining halls. Environmentalists who view fair work practices as a component of sustainability now support workers in their campaign for full-time work. And student activists (like me) who care both about the environment and labor rights can form large coalitions that press for true systemic change in the food system.

So when you see posters, buttons, or leaflets around campus calling for “sustainable jobs,” don’t just think about organic food. Think about Harvard’s dining hall workers, security guards, and custodians. Think about full-time jobs. Think about the environmental movement and the labor movement working together at last. And think about how Harvard’s workers are redefining sustainability in a campaign that brings together students, workers, and activists in one unified fight.

Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.