On Oct.5, 2016, hundreds of dining workers traded in their punch cards for picket signs, walked out of the dining halls and cafes on Harvard’s campus, and demanded contract improvements in the first campus-wide strike the University had seen since 1983. Twenty-two days later, union and Harvard representatives reached an agreement highly favorable to striking dining workers during dramatic, late-night negotiations held behind closed doors in an office building near campus.
Now — two years later — the University and labor groups are still feeling the reverberations of the strike that shook campus.
The 2016 strike followed months of prolonged negotiations between the University and UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents Harvard University Dining Services workers. The union chose to escalate pressure on the University and conduct a strike vote when it found itself at a stalemate with Harvard over three main issues, HUDS Chief Shop Steward Edward B. Childs remembered.
The first issue was pay. In the weeks before the strike, University spokespeople told The Crimson that the average hourly wage for a HUDS worker was $21.89, translating to an average annual salary of $35,000; union negotiators, meanwhile, estimated that workers’ average salary at the time was closer to $31,000. In the final rounds of negotiation heading into the strike, the union proposed setting a $35,000 minimum guaranteed salary for year-round employees and requested a 22 percent pay increase over five years.
Healthcare was also a crucial concern for both union negotiators and the union’s members-at-large, Childs said. Kerry Maiato, a HUDS employee who works in Annenberg dining hall, said he was inspired to strike because, as the father of three children, he was deeply concerned by potential increases in healthcare co-payments.
“It was really important to me having good, affordable healthcare for my family,” Maiato said.
Anabela A. Pappas, a HUDS employee who works in Cabot and Pforzheimer dining halls, agreed. She said maintaining low out-of-pocket healthcare costs comprised one of two factors that drove her to strike: as a long-time diabetic, she knew she could not pay the cost the University’s insurance proposal would impose on her.
“I said that there was no way we would be able to afford doing that insurance, or even be able to afford to take care of our family, ” Pappas said.
She also wanted to stay healthy to feed the students she says are like children to her.
“700 people at Harvard came out and said, ‘Harvard can’t afford to have insurance for those who feed the students?’” Pappas said. “We have to be healthy for the students.”
“We want to take care of them and really do the best that we can,” she added.
At the time, Harvard Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran said the University offered Local 26 the same healthcare plan it extended to two other unions, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers and the Area Trades Council, which eliminated deductibles but increased co-payments. University spokespeople estimated the average HUDS employee would likely see an increase in cost of less than $11 per month. Local 26 rejected that offer.
The third major issue that forced the union to the bargaining table was Harvard’s layoff system for dining services workers — union members hoped to seriously reform it. Childs noted that, when students leave campus for winter and summer breaks, seasonal layoffs for the workers who prepare their food can follow close behind.
“We had layoffs up to three months at some times for some people and no money,” Childs said. “We can't collect unemployment.”
For three weeks, HUDS workers walked the picket lines from the Quad to Longwood, beating drums and yelling chants like "Harvard, Harvard, you can't hide, we can see your greedy side!" During the demonstrations, they received just $40 per day, all of it drawn from Local 26’s strike fund. Hundreds of students joined the workers on the picket lines, the Cambridge City Council and the Undergraduate Council endorsed the strike, and some alumni chose not to donate to the University in support of the union’s endeavor. The strike also attracted national media attention.
With their usual workforce depleted, some campus cafes and dining halls had to temporarily shutter their doors. Those that remained open relied on stockpiled frozen food to feed undergraduates. Of around 750 total dining services workers, only 14 reportedly broke the strike and returned to work.
On Oct. 25, 2016 at around 1:05 a.m., The Crimson reported that the University and the union’s bargaining committees had reached "a tentative agreement." The final version of that agreement set year-round employees’ salaries at $35,000 per year, provided stipends to offset summer layoffs, and required that the University cover healthcare copayments. The 2016 contract — which the workers ratified in a 583-1 vote 22 days after they first walked out — will last until 2021.
Not long after HUDS workers concluded their strike, other universities started taking notice of their success.
In September 2017, workers at nearby Northeastern prepared for a strike to put pressure on their administration to bargain more constructively, citing Harvard's example. And in April 2018, dining workers at Tufts unionized with UNITE HERE, joining ranks with the HUDS employees they said inspired them to organize in the first place.
Pappas observed that, since the conclusion of the strike, Harvard has also gained another union of its own: the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.
“A lot of the students learned that together, you can accomplish greater things,” Pappas said. “We teach them you have to stick together.”
The effects of HUDS workers’ walkout were not limited to college campuses. Last month, hotel workers unionized with UNITE HERE began a strike against Marriott across eight U.S. cities including Boston.Childs said the striking Marriott employees have consulted with HUDS workers, some of whom participated in Marriott rallies.
Yet some dining workers say that, despite the changes they won in their contract, problems remain.
Pappas and Charlene V. Almeida, a HUDS employee who works at Quincy and Hillel dining halls, both said they still feel overscheduled and overworked.
“They’re trying to put more work on us, overwork us, in a lot of ways. I thought that would have changed some,” Almeida said.
Some workers also cited the “instability” of break periods as a major issue. Though the union’s contract contains provisions granting stipends to employees who are temporarily laid off during the summer recess, 42 days of paid time off to all workers, and a paid winter break from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, Almeida and Pappas both said these measures have not provided sufficient support or stability for workers.
Almeida, Pappas, and Maiato also said they wish the University would make more summer positions available for dining workers.
“Having more stable jobs — they’re trying to change that, but it’s not going fast enough, you know?” Almeida said. “You still have a bunch of employees who are still home in the summertime.”
“More jobs need to open up, but they haven’t really done it yet,” she added.
Pappas said this dilemma is especially difficult for couples like her and her husband, Christopher M. Pappas, who also works for HUDS. In a situation like theirs, Pappas said, a household could potentially lose two sources of income during the period between the end of paid winter break and the beginning of the spring semester.
“We close on 21st of December, and a lot of [HUDS employees] don’t come back until January 21st,” Pappas said. “People have to budget.”
“We won the stipends, which was something that will help us a lot, but for those who have children, they need a little more than that,” she added.
University spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson wrote in an emailed statement that the University “remains pleased” with the agreement the two parties reached.
“Two years into this five year contract, the University still remains pleased that it was able to reach an agreement that all parties involved recognize as a superior deal for these critically important members of the Harvard community,” Jackson wrote. “We deeply value the contributions of our dining service workers, as evidenced by our long-term commitment to ensuring fair and competitive wages, health care, pensions, retiree healthcare, and many other benefits.”
Despite the continued difficulties she said workers face, Pappas said she and her coworkers remain inspired by the long-term impact their strike has had, both within Harvard’s dining halls and without.
“I was so proud,” Pappas said. “We’d have thousands of people sometimes out in the strike, and everybody from all over the world — they got along, they hugged, they talked to us. We wiped each other’s tears.”
“That was a thing I’ll never forget, ever, ever. This will be embedded in my life forever,” she added.