When the Harvard University Dining Services workers announced earlier this month that they were considering a strike during their contract negotiations with the University, a now-familiar refrain emerged: If Harvard can invest and raise billions of dollars every year, why can’t it pay its workers more?
Soon, fliers appeared under doors, on bulletin boards, and across social media, each pointing to Harvard’s success raising $7 billion in its capital campaign to argue that the University could afford to better compensate its employees. And while representatives from Harvard say University budgeting is more complicated than the HUDS campaign suggests, the movement has brought criticism to the often-touted process of fundraising at Harvard.
On Sept. 1, Harvard announced that it had passed the $7 billion mark in its ongoing capital campaign, blasting through its $6.5 billion goal with about two years left in its historic fundraising drive. Within a week of the announcement, HUDS workers launched their campaign with the 10-figure haul central to its case.
“Harvard recently raised a record $7 billion, surpassing its fundraising goal by $500 million, yet it consistently fails to look out for its lowest-paid and hardest-working employees,” reads a petition circulated in support of HUDS.
According to Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, the HUDS campaign’s rhetorical strategy—pitting Harvard’s workers against the wealthy institution—is typical among labor movements.
“It just sounds like the administration sort of screwed up ballyhooing their success in fundraising the moment this was happening,” Milkman said, referring to the HUDS contract negotiations. “The union would be crazy not to capitalize on that.”
Harvard contests the premise of the labor organizers’ message. In a statement, Tania deLuzuriaga, a spokesperson for the University, said that Harvard fundraising campaigns contribute to the research and educational goals of the institution, and many gifts are designated for specific initiatives. In short, Harvard cannot simply pull money out of a $7 billion pot to pay the workers more, according to deLuzuriagia.
“[F]undraising campaigns by their nature are long-range undertakings in terms of both vision and benefits,” deLuzuriaga wrote. “The current total includes both gifts and longer-term pledges that are paid over many years; many of these contributions are restricted, invested in the endowment and will be distributed over time.”
But to the HUDS organizers, the $7 billion figure is more a symbol of the University’s wealth than representative of available funds.
Brian Lang, the president of UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents HUDS, said that the amount of money necessary to properly compensate HUDS workers is very small compared to the University’s total financial resources.
“That response is an exposure to the administration's lack of humanity to a group of people who are vital to the community at Harvard, I think it says it all—‘it’s already earmarked.’”
According to Richard A. Marker, a co-founder of fundraising advisory firm Wise Philanthropy, the salaries of employees like dining workers are not usually major selling points during fundraising drives.
“It’s not somehow that they’re so cavalier that it doesn’t matter to them, it’s usually the case that they don’t think in those micro terms,” Marker said of most major university donors. “If you’re giving $100 million, you're probably not going to ask if the maintenance person is being well paid.”
HUDS workers voted Thursday on whether or not they will strike, and according to Local 26 spokesperson Tiffany Ten Eyck, workers were leaning toward an “overwhelming yes vote.”
Harvard may provide food vouchers or hire temporary contractors if the dining workers do choose to go on strike after their contract ends Saturday.
—Brandon J. Dixon contributed to the reporting of this story.
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