Harvard’s dining service workers are threatening to strike after over three months of stagnant and tense contract talks with the University.
Since June, representatives from Harvard’s labor relations department and UNITE HERE Local 26—the Boston-based labor union that represents Harvard’s dining service workers—have met to hammer out the details of their contract after it was set to expire during the summer. After 15 meetings, HUDS negotiators and Harvard had not yet come to an agreement about several key issues, including health care and wage increases. Frustrated by the stalemate, workers last Thursday voted 591-18 to authorize a strike, though workers have yet to walk off the job as negotiators try to negotiate an 11th hour solution.
What follows is a primer on the topics on the table in this round of negotiations, and the proposals the parties have traded thus far.
Harvard and Local 26 have different estimates on an average dining worker's salary. According to University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga, the average annual salary for HUDS workers is $35,000, while Local’s 26 lead negotiator Michael Kramer said in an interview that he estimates it is closer to $31,000. The average hourly wage of a dining hall workers is $21.89, according to deLuzuriaga, who said that the wage “lead[s] the local and national workforce for comparable positions in the foodservice industry.”
HUDS workers have argued that while their hourly wages may be competitive, the fact that dining employees are not guaranteed year-round work by the University limits their ability to make a livable wage. HUDS workers—of which there are about 750 total—do not generally work during Harvard’s summer and winter recesses.
The union has proposed to extend year-round work to any interested employees and set a $35,000 “minimum guaranteed salary” for those employees, according to Local 26 spokesperson Tiffany Ten Eyck. In addition, the union is requesting a 22 percent pay increase over the course of the next five years.
According to deLuzuriaga, “past contracts with Local 26 have settled around 2.5 or 3 percent annually” in wage increases.
Harvard initially offered Local 26 a health care plan identical to the one extended to the University’s largest union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, or HUCTW, and a smaller union, the Area Trades Council, according to Harvard Labor Relations Director Paul R. Curran. That plan eliminated deductibles—the amount a person has to pay out of pocket before their insurance company will pay a claim—and increased copayments.
Harvard estimates that the average HUDS employee would likely see an increase in cost “of less than $11/month under the plan Harvard has proposed,” deLuzuriaga wrote. Local 26 rejected that offer. Laquiesha N. Rainey, a union organizer and HUDS worker, argued that HUDS employees have lower salaries than HUCTW and ATC workers, on average, so their health benefits plan would be unsustainable for dining workers.
Throughout the course of the negotiations, Local 26 leadership has asked the University to develop a “creative” solution to the issue of health care that does not shift costs onto the union’s workers. But the union has yet to offer specifics about what changes they would like to see in the current health benefits proposal.
In an effort to devise a compromise, Curran said the University offered to pay into a benefits fund UNITE HERE Local 26 has for its members who choose not to enroll in their employer’s health benefits plan. Dining workers and their families are eligible for health insurance under Harvard’s plan if the employees work a minimum of 16 hours a week, a package deLuzuriaga described as “one of the lowest hourly thresholds in the region for granting health insurance to part-time workers.”
To date, HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin said the University has a “contingency plan to ensure a minimum of disruption for the community” if employees go on strike, but will only release the specific details of that plan if HUDS workers do strike. According to Local 26 president Brian Lang, if HUDS workers go on strike, it will mark the first time the union has walked off the job during the academic year. Their last walkout, in 1983, occurred during the summer.
If similar contract disputes at Yale are any indication, Harvard could provide vouchers for undergraduates to dine at Square restaurants throughout the duration of the strike.
Local 26 has not set a date to strike, but Lang said in an interview earlier this month that a strike could be averted if the union’s bargaining unit felt that the University “genuinely wanted to cooperate” with them in developing a solution to health care. An additional bargaining session between Harvard and its dining services union is scheduled for Sept. 27, at which a federal mediator will facilitate the talks. According to Kramer, the union will reassess whether it will strike after that bargaining session.
—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.