Every morning since Oct. 6, one of Harvard’s catering workers has descended into the tunnels beneath undergraduate dining halls to get to work. He does not want to be seen.
The employee, who has reported to work since the second day of the dining workers’ unprecedented strike, asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from UNITE HERE Local 26—the Boston-based union representing Harvard’s dining workers in their current contract negotiations with the University. He has chosen to cross the picket lines each day because he believes the benefits that workers currently receive, in addition to the wage and health plans Harvard has proposed during the negotiations, are competitive in the food services industry. He also said he does not believe the union has properly communicated details about the progress of the negotiations, which have gone on for four months.
This employee is one of a small number who have, during the course of the more than two-week long strike, avoided the crowds of marching dining hall staff and have resumed work in Harvard dining facilities. The vast majority of HUDS employees support the strike—workers voted 591-18 in favor of authorizing the strike in a ballot last month.
Fourteen HUDS workers have crossed the picket line and returned to work, according to an email from College Dean for Administration and Finance Sheila C. Thimba, forwarded over the Lowell House open list by Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck.
Since May, Harvard and Local 26 have engaged in tense negotiations focusing primarily on wages and health benefits. Local 26 has asked the University for guaranteed summer work for interested employees, and a $35,000 "minimum guaranteed" annual salary for those employees. In addition, the union has asked that Harvard keep dining workers' current health plan in place next year. Harvard initially proposed a health plan—which would increase copayments, cut deductibles, and create a new premium contribution tier—identical to the one negotiated by its largest union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, last winter.
Over the course of negotiations, Harvard has also offered to contribute the “equivalent cost of the Harvard University Group Health Plan enrollment premium” to a health care plan the union offers in-house. The University also offered a series of “summer stipends” that would pay HUDS workers between $150 to $250 weekly to be available to work during the summer, regardless of whether they actually work a shift. Local 26 has rejected these offers.
HUDS workers’ personal situations and experiences—whether they are single or have families, whether they have ongoing health concerns or live in particularly expensive areas of Boston—shape how they view the ongoing strike. Picketing HUDS employee Laquiesha N. Rainey, for example, has the chronic disease lupus, which requires regular and extensive visits to specialists; copay increases could affect her more than others without a chronic illness. She also has a two-year-old daughter for whom she must provide.
But some employees—the few who have chosen not to picket—say the wages and health care proposals Harvard has put forward would keep their personal situations stable. The HUDS worker who uses the tunnels to get to work does not have dependents and makes $24.36 per hour—above the average the University reports for HUDS workers.
Larry E. Houston, a general cook who stopped striking and began reporting to Annenberg on Oct. 11—about a week after the strike began—said he thinks the wages HUDS workers currently receive are sustainable. Houston makes between $24 and $25 per hour, is single, and does not have any dependents.
“We get a pretty good deal,” Houston said. “And you can plan ahead to save money for the months where we’re not employed. You must make plans.”
On healthcare, while Houston said he would much rather keep the benefits he has now, he is not opposed to signing up for the open enrollment coverage plan Harvard has offered for 2017.
A week after the strike began, Houston became frustrated with the union and returned to work, where he says he has worked overtime as he fills in for workers who are still out on the picket lines. Local 26 pays picketing HUDS employees $40 per day. According to Local 26 president Brian Lang, the union will distribute its next payment of strike benefits on Friday.
Local 26 also launched a “strike assistance” fund last week that has garnered more than 500 donations, and the union has also received food from faculty members and students organizations, including the First Generation Student Union.
Houston also said he did not like the picketing methods strikers have employed. Specifically, he said he took issue with a dance party the union hosted in the Science Center Plaza on its third day of the strike.
“What kind of message are we sending?” Houston, who at the time had still been picketing, said. “A message that we aren’t serious about what we’re doing.”
A third worker, Gilda S. Correia, who works at the Harvard Kennedy School, criticized Local 26 in a video distributed to some HUDS workers, expressing dismay that the strike has persisted as long as it has.
“The union was supposed to be fighting for us,” Correia, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in the video. “If we’re paying them, they should be sitting there and doing the job, fighting for us.”
Lang wrote in an emailed statement, provided by Local 26 spokesperson Tiffany Ten Eyck, that he hopes any employees who have returned to work will join the picket lines.
“A very small number of workers have chosen to return to work. We hope they will join us on the lines again soon and encourage them to do so,” Lang wrote. “We believe that the extraordinary display of resolve and unity by the Harvard dining services strikers will win us a fair resolution to the strike.”
He added that “[w]hile Harvard has slowly moved in our direction during our discussions, our core issues remain unresolved.”
—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached @firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.