UPDATED: September 7, 2016, at 11:44 p.m.
Harvard University Dining Services workers will hold a vote Sept. 15 on whether to strike—a move that would cap off months of prolonged negotiations that have left the workers demanding higher wages and improved health benefits.
Representatives from UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents HUDS, announced the date of the vote at a rally in First Parish Church Wednesday afternoon that attracted activists and students from across the University and culminated in a march through Harvard Square.
“We want to be crystal clear about one thing: the Local 26 members who cook, serve the food, and take care of the students are deadly serious when they say we’re getting ready to strike,” Local 26 president Brian Lang said at the rally, which about 200 people attended.
If a majority of union members vote “yes” next Thursday, Local 26 can commence a strike after the Sept. 17 expiration of their current contract with the University, HUDS worker and union organizer Laquiesha N. Rainey said in an interview before the rally. Their current contract with Harvard, extended from June, includes a customary “no-strike” clause. Before the vote, the union and Harvard administrators will continue to meet for negotiations.
Supporters, carrying posters affixed with around 600 photos dining hall workers backing the strike, streamed outside the church chanting “We’re gonna strike.”
“We’re not just sabre-rattling. There will be a strike on this campus, if need be,” Lang said.
Students from several University activist groups came to the rally, including undergraduates in the Student Labor Action Movement and the Harvard Islamic Society, Medical School students in the Racial Justice Coalition and Ph.D. students in the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers.
University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga refuted several of the allegations the union and SLAM made before and during the rally. She specifically addressed a claims made in a widely-circulated email in support of HUDS that Harvard is “trying to make detrimental changes to workers’ health care.”
“The University has put forth a number of proposals to address Local 26’s concerns regarding health care costs,” deLuzuriaga wrote in an emailed statement. “Harvard’s health care plans have long included provisions to protect workers, union and non-union, who earn less through the implementation of progressive tiered premiums, and reimbursement plans that reduce out of pocket costs to as little as $800 a year.”
Dining hall workers said they did not expect such an outpouring of support and were excited to see a crowd attend the rally.
“I was very surprised—especially with the medical students coming in today. We were not expecting this and I’m just so thankful,” Cabot and Pforzheimer dining hall worker Anabela A. Pappas said.
Tiffany Ten Eyck, spokesperson for Local 26, said next Thursday’s vote will be held from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. at First Parish church.
“It’s not an easy decision. Our people with families have to make a decision,” Edward B. Childs, a dining hall worker in Adams, said.
Rainey said a strike would be a “complicated thing.”
“It’s one of those where you’re expecting everybody to just walk out and not come into work, and picket and make a lot of noise about what we’re fighting for, and make sure we’re being heard,” Rainey said. “You can’t strike and not have any action behind it.”
SLAM members advertised ahead of the rally, postering kiosks and individual dormitories in the Yard and Houses. Last night around 9 p.m., the group disseminated a petition over email lists in support of the workers’ intent to strike. According to SLAM member Samuel R. Heller ’18, as of Wednesday night, the petition garnered more than 1,600 signatures since it was launched, with signatories hailing from across the University.
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News Analysis: HUDS Strike Threat Rooted in HistoryLast week, Harvard’s dining hall workers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike after more than three months of stagnant contract talks. But this is not the first time UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents HUDS employees, has brandished the threat of a strike in the face of static negotiations.