It was the fall of 2016, and Doris E. Reina-Landaverde was trying to avert a crisis.
The contract between her union, 32BJ SEIU — which represents Harvard’s custodians and security guards — and the University was about to expire. Reina-Landaverde, herself a Harvard custodian, had been selected to assist with negotiations for a new multi-year contract.
She desperately wanted the new contract to pass. On the table were pay raises, more affordable health care, and more opportunities for full-time employment. Health care was a particularly pressing concern for Reina-Landaverde — her daughter needed treatment for her asthma, and up to that point, she and other custodial workers had been paying for a large part of their health coverage without the University’s assistance.
But Reina-Landaverde was facing a roadblock to that goal: Many of her co-workers, who had become disengaged from the union, seemed like they weren’t willing to fight for the contract. Without a critical mass of custodians, 32BJ wouldn’t have the power to pressure the University into an agreement. Bargaining tools like a strike or a protest simply wouldn’t be possible.
As contract negotiations began in October, the union decided to hold a rally for custodians. But in the days leading up to the event, very few workers indicated that they would come. The union representative — the liaison between Harvard custodial workers and 32BJ who had organized the rally — was afraid that nobody would show up at all.
Reina-Landaverde was horrified. “I was thinking, ‘How could my co-workers not show up?’” she says. “‘This is my contract. These are the benefits for my family.’ I couldn't sleep.”
Still, the union had chosen her for a reason. She began devising a plan. “I sent an email to my boss asking for permission to meet with my group the next day at 10 o’clock,” she recalls. “And he said yes. And I started texting [my coworkers].”
Reina-Landaverde continues, “The next day, I met with these people, and I said, ‘Okay, guys, if you’re not coming out, we will lose, because the only way we can win is if we go to the streets.’ I said I would be waiting for them at 12 o’clock. ‘We’re going to march all the way to the Science Center.’ And they agreed.”
When Reina-Landaverde got to the Science Center around 11:30 a.m., nobody had arrived yet. The union representative was pessimistic. “I told her that everybody would come,” Reina-Landaverde says. “I trust my people will come out.” She was right: 200 workers came, close to a third of all custodians at the University.
Throughout the rest of the contract negotiations, the custodians stuck together. That November, after the University remained obstinate, they voted to strike if Harvard didn’t accede to their demands. Days later, 32BJ and the University reached a tentative agreement. Reina-Landaverde and her co-workers had won.
Today, some of Reina-Landaverde’s colleagues call her the most powerful organizer at Harvard. It’s not hard to see why — in addition to working to consolidate union power around the University, she is also the face of one of the most visible immigrants’ rights organizations on campus, the Harvard TPS Coalition, which advocates for workers who hold Temporary Protected Status.
“I've never seen anybody like her,” says Edward B. Childs, a former chief shop steward in UNITE HERE, the union that represents dining hall workers. “She doesn't just stand by herself. She immediately organizes everybody around her.”
When she brought out hundreds of people to the rally that fall, Reina-Landaverde was just beginning to tap into a skill that she’d perfect in the years to come — through a combination of charisma and determination, she was able to motivate people to fight as a collective.
“It lit a fire in me,” she says. “I started to see life differently. I understood that I could do a lot. And so I started my life as an organizer.”
Reina-Landaverde was born in 1978 in the countryside of northeastern El Salvador. It was a serene early childhood, with cows, sheep, and horses scattered across her family’s farm.
“My father had a place [on the farm] with bees to collect honey. One time, my brother came with a big stick and pushed the bees and we had to run, and they followed us into the whole house,” she recalls. “These are the funny things, the memories that I always have in my mind. I can only remember it like a dream.”
It was a dream that didn’t last. Right-wing dictatorships had ruled El Salvador for decades, interrupted by intermittent conflict with left-wing insurgents. In 1980, the situation devolved into 12 violent years of civil war. By the end of the war in 1992, Salvadoran government forces, trained and funded by the U.S. government, had killed over 75,000 civilians.
The war, which had begun in the city, initially seemed like a distant threat to Reina-Landaverde. But the conflict eventually infiltrated the countryside, where guerilla forces could hide away in the forest. To stop the insurgents, the Salvadoran government began bombing the countryside.
For the next few years, Reina-Landaverde saw Salvadorans “fighting each other and shooting each other. Sometimes, the helicopters above would just throw bombs. It was like a nightmare.”
Desperate to find safety, her family moved to a new town and began anew with extremely limited resources. “We lost everything,” says Reina-Landaverde. “At that moment, I realized how much life had changed.” She was thirteen years old.
Six years after the war’s official end, Reina-Landaverde returned with her parents to the family farm to help her ailing mother. Life was far less idyllic there than she’d remembered. The economic devastation of the war, combined with their rural lifestyle, meant that the family could no longer afford essential goods. They found themselves struggling to finance Reina-Landaverde’s mother’s medicine.
El Salvador also remained extremely dangerous. When the civil war ended, thousands of Salvadoran refugees in the United States were deported, including members of Los Angeles-based gangs. Amid El Salvador’s economic desperation, the gangs proliferated. The threat of murder, rape, or kidnapping was ever-present.
Reina-Landaverde had had enough. She had several family members in the U.S. — immigrating there, she thought, would give her the kind of safety and opportunity that El Salvador could no longer offer.
In 2000, when she was twenty-one, Reina-Landaverde left El Salvador for America with her uncle and his wife. They paid $6,000 each, lent to them by family in the U.S., to travel in a caravan of 400 people organized by “coyotes,” smugglers who guide groups of immigrants across borders.
She soon began to feel that she had made a mistake. Because of their vulnerability and tendency to take the same routes, migrants are easy targets for criminals. Early on in their journey, high into the mountains that divide El Salvador and Guatemala, the group was shot at by robbers. A member of the caravan was hit and died right in front of her. “In that moment, I just wanted to return home,” Reina-Landaverde says.
But the coyotes, who wouldn’t be paid the full $6,000 until the group made it to the U.S., wouldn’t let her leave. They continued on their journey, trekking through Guatemala and then Mexico.
Salvadoran citizens can legally pass through Guatemala without a visa. Mexico, however, is much less friendly to migrants. To avoid immigration authorities, the coyotes used a number of tactics, she says; at one point, they hid people in the bottom of a truck filled with pineapples. At another, they put them in the cargo hold of a bus. Reina-Landaverde, who was always the smallest, was put at the very back; she would endure hours-long journeys with bodies piled on top of her. “I never felt anything,” she says. “I don’t know why. I think I just dissociated because I didn’t want to feel any pain.”
On the last stretch of their journey, she says, she thought that she was going to die. The group had been walking through the desert from Mexico to Arizona for five days, and her knees hurt unbearably. “I couldn’t walk anymore,” she says. “I told my uncle to leave because I didn’t want the police to catch [him].” Bizarrely enough, that night it began to hail. She used the ice to soothe the pain in her knees; it was enough to allow her to continue.
The coyotes chartered a van to pick them up in Arizona and take them to Los Angeles. From there, she flew to Boston, where she had relatives waiting to welcome her. In December 2000, her journey was over.
In the next few months, two catastrophic earthquakes hit El Salvador, leading the U.S. government to grant undocumented immigrants from El Salvador with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) on March 9, 2001. TPS is a program that grants legal residency to formerly undocumented immigrants, shielding them from deportation to unstable or dangerous countries. Reinda-Landaverde applied and was accepted; she could now begin her life in the United States.
Part of her still wondered if it was worth it, though. When she arrived in East Boston, where her relatives lived, she was unimpressed. “I almost died, and here I see all these houses together and so many buildings,” she says. “The first thought I had was, ‘I risked my life for this?’”
Reina-Landaverde’s first job in the United States was at a company that did laundry for Boston hospitals. They used industrial-sized machines that operated at high heat; the temperature inside the building was so unbearable that she regularly fainted. After four years, she quit.
Her next job was as a house cleaner for a small cleaning company. At first, she liked the work. Then, she realized that there was a substantial difference between what the clients paid and how much money she earned. The company’s rate was $40 an hour; Reina-Landaverde only made $8. Her boss pocketed the difference. She quit that job, too.
But it wasn’t the end of the problems that she’d endure at work. Eventually, the injustices she faced propelled her into union work and labor organizing — from her perspective, she didn’t have any other choice.
In 2004, she began working part-time as a custodian at Harvard Medical School. After eight years at HMS, she was able to move to a full-time position across the river at the Law School. She had high hopes; the job compensated her better than any she’d had before. However, she didn’t realize that she’d also become a target. Soon after she began working at HLS, Reina-Landaverde, who’d converted to Islam after she married her husband, Mohammed, started getting called a terrorist by her co-workers.
“I cried on my first day,” she says. It only made things worse. “When I cried, everyone laughed at me. Even the managers took part. I was terrified of going to work.” She began to physically shake every time she entered the building.
Reina-Landaverde felt a familiar sensation creeping up on her, one that had come and gone with the darkest periods of her life for years. Not only did she not want to work, she didn’t really want to do anything. She took a disability leave for two months and started seeing a therapist, who told her that she was depressed.
In fact, she had probably been depressed for several years. The trauma she endured in El Salvador, she realized, had left a permanent mark. It was the first time she truly understood the weight she was carrying.
When she returned to work, she was determined to make something change: “I wanted a place where I felt like going to work,” she says. Initially, she asked her manager to start implementing anti-harassment training. This didn’t go well. “He told me I couldn’t tell him what to do because he was the boss. And he told me that nobody, not even the union, not even me, could tell him what he had to do.”
“When he said that, I decided that I was going to prove him wrong,” Reina-Landaverde says. The first place she went was her union, 32BJ SEIU. She thought that it might be her best bet for changing her workplace.
However, when Reina-Landaverde became involved in 32BJ, she quickly realized she would have to do more than report injustices; she would also have to change the way that workers and the union interacted.
A lot of her co-workers, she says, didn’t know the power that unions could wield. “I wouldn’t say that the union was bad,” she says. “If workers aren’t active, the unions won’t be active either, because the workers have to push the union to do their job.”
Mirroring the decline of the national labor movement, union organizing at Harvard had been weakened over the previous decades, according to Reina-Landaverde.
Edward B. Childs, the former chief shop steward in UNITE HERE, began working at Harvard over 40 years ago. (Childs retired last year.) “It’s more difficult to organize today,” he says. “Back then we had the Civil Rights Movement. So we had a lot of workers who had participated in the Civil Rights Movement and watched it and had the spirit of organizing. Today, that’s not true.”
At the time, union organizing at Harvard was animated by the knowledge of a connection between racism and labor exploitation. Early on in his tenure at the university, in 1976, Childs staffed a party for faculty where a guest complained that something had been stolen out of her purse. “So what management did was get all the black men and line them up and say, ‘Who stole it?’” he says.
This wasn’t an isolated incident; tensions between dining hall workers and management over perceieved racist treatment had been rising for years. By the time of the party, the dining hall workers were fed up. In protest, over 100 dining hall staff walked off of their jobs, shutting down operations during lunch hour.
By the time Reina-Landaverde arrived at Harvard, most union leaders who had been trained during the Civil Rights Movement were gone. Further, Reina-Landaverde says that when she began her involvement in her union, immigrants’ rights weren’t a huge priority.
The result was a workplace where management felt that they could operate with impunity, she says. In 2016, she found out that a supervisor at the Law School had been comparing her Black co-workers to monkeys. “He showed them a picture of a monkey on his phone and said, ‘This is you, this is your family,’” she says.
Her co-workers were afraid to complain; they thought that they’d lose their jobs. Reina-Landaverde says they would tell her, “‘You see how they give you a hard time just because you’re in the union?’” She tried to encourage them anyway. “I said that if everybody came together, we could fight together.”
In fact, not everybody came together. Reina-Landaverde and some of her colleagues ended up reporting that supervisor to Human Resources, and he was fired. But her own manager made sure that she paid for it —Reina-Landaverde says he harassed her and the other workers who stepped forward while paying overtime to workers who had remained silent, encouraging them to harass her, too.
In an email responding to Doris Reina-Landaverde and her colleagues’ experiences with harassment in their workplaces, Jason A. Newton, a University spokesperson, wrote, “The University firmly rejects any and all discriminatory behavior and is fully committed to providing a positive and inclusive environment that is free from all forms of harassment.”
For Reina-Landaverde, the situation was scarring. Later that year, she left the Law School for good and began working at Harvard College.
Still, Reina-Landaverde hadn’t given up on organizing. That same year, she was asked to help negotiate the new contract between 32BJ and the University. Her job was to figure out what workers needed and drum up support for the new agreement. She’d learned a valuable lesson from her experience at the Law School: If she were to succeed this time, she would need to make sure that all of her co-workers stood with her.
Ultimately, Reina-Landaverde found that her most effective organizing tool was fairly simple: she listened. “People need attention,” she says. “It’s not like you can be an organizer and ask people to come out if they don’t understand why they’re coming out. You have to build that relationship. You have to build people’s trust.”
She became known for successfully intervening in disputes between her co-workers and their supervisors. Eventually, she says, custodians knew that “anytime they needed me, I would be there to support them.” In return, they came out when she asked.
Initially, she used this strategy to organize support for the custodians’ 2016 contract. But in 2018, when the Trump administration announced that it would end TPS for El Salvador, she realized that she would need to use it for a broader cause, too.
As is implied by the name, TPS is meant to be temporary. Yet for years the program had consistently been extended for a few months at a time. In the meantime, Reina-Landaverde, like almost 250,000 other TPS holders from El Salvador, had already built a life in the United States.
Reina-Landaverde was always aware that her life in this country was precarious. But it wasn’t until November 2017, when the Trump administration announced that it would end TPS for immigrants from Nicaragua and then Haiti, that she realized it might fall apart entirely. As the new year approached, she dreaded an announcement that El Salvador would be next to go.
On January 8, 2018, an innocuous-looking press release appeared on the Department of Homeland Security’s website:
“Today, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced her determination that termination of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for El Salvador was required pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act. To allow for an orderly transition, she has determined to delay the termination for 18 months. The designation will terminate on Sept. 9, 2019.”
When Reina-Landaverde heard the news, she was devastated. She now had a family; the thought of being separated from her three daughters was unbearable. “I was crying,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to work. I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t want to think about anything.”
If she returned to El Salvador, she would quite likely be in significant danger. According to the DHS’s statement, the Trump administration had decided to end TPS for El Salvador because “the substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist [sic].” But Reina-Landaverde, like many other TPS holders from El Salvador, had fled to the United States before the earthquakes even happened. The conditions that caused them to leave still haven’t been resolved, and, in some ways, have worsened: San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
In the days after the announcement, the only thing that helped Reina-Landaverde was the possibility of taking action — not just to keep TPS, but also to ensure that her fellow TPS holders had a path to permanent residency.
As unions across campus scrambled to protect their workers, Reina-Landaverde began speaking to Genevieve Butler, a faculty assistant in the Sociology department and a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. Butler had an idea: A group from around the University could band together to pressure Harvard into using its unique position in American society to lobby for TPS holders.
Not only did Reina-Landaverde and Butler want TPS protected, they also wanted the University’s help in pushing for permanent residency and a path to citizenship, which would ultimately make the lives of TPS holders more secure. From this idea, Reina-Landaverde, Butler, Childs, and two other workers at Harvard, Julio A. Perez and Martha I. Bonilla, founded the Harvard TPS Coalition.
First, the Coalition organized a petition urging then-University President Drew G. Faust to make a public show of support for TPS. When the petition garnered over 300 signatures, Reina-Landaverde personally delivered it to Faust’s office. Days later, Faust penned a letter in support of TPS to Congressional leaders.
From then on, Reina-Landaverde threw herself into the Coalition. “It helped me to be less depressed,” she says. “I don’t know what will happen to [TPS holders]. I don’t think about that. I just focus on working hard because I want permanent residency for me and 400,000 other people.”
But many TPS holders at Harvard were terrified of coming forward. “That’s understandable,” she says. “But we also know that we need to set [the fear] aside in order to earn permanent legal status. If we lose our TPS, we will be undocumented. We’ll live in fear every time we leave the house of being arrested by ICE and deported.”
Reina-Landaverde also knew that she needed a critical mass of the Harvard community behind her. By that point, she understood that if she showed up for other people, they would show up for her. So Reina-Landaverde began appearing everywhere.
She began with Harvard’s unions. In 2018, the major unions at Harvard aside from 32BJ SEIU were UNITE HERE Local 26, who represent dining hall workers, and HUCTW, which represents clerical workers. Historically, those unions had organized separately. But Reina-Landaverde made a point of showing up at picket lines and actions for each group. When the graduate students announced that they were forming a union, she was with them, too. Soon, she started organizing rallies that included all of Harvard’s unions in support of permanent residency.
“To win, we have to combine all these issues into one,” she says. “Everybody has to work together. That’s what’s been missing; we’ve been divided. People say, ‘Oh, I’m just fighting for workers,’ or ‘Oh, I’m just fighting for immigrants.’ But imagine if all those groups came together. We would win.”
She got involved with student groups, too. In March 2019, she stood in front of dozens of people at a rally for prison divestment. “As a TPS holder, it’s very important that Harvard has to divest from prisons,” she said. “Because for me, an immigrant, this [Trump] administration is targeting us as criminals.”
“She made the case that as a TPS holder, she was a future prisoner,” Childs says. “And she portrayed that prisoners are really incarcerated workers. And that floored everybody.”
The audience was rapt. “This is not right, what they’re doing, putting money in those companies,” Reina-Landaverde cried, her voice rising with emotion. “Because who are the targets? We are the targets. They want to fill those jails with us.”
“Why does the President of Harvard University not support TPS holders?” she continued, yelling into her megaphone. “We have 400 TPS holders, workers here at Harvard!”
Across campus, Reina-Landaverde continues to deliver speeches with a similar sentiment for different student-run social groups. “She’s able to step forward and share her story and make the Harvard TPS Coalition bigger,” Butler says. “She can speak to, ‘Why does this overlap with women’s struggle?’ Or, ‘What does this have to do with climate change?’ She’s so focused on involving everyone. It really is because of her that we have the coordination we have now.”
“We would be in tough shape without her,” Childs acknowledges.
In February 2019, the Harvard TPS Coalition joined thousands of others at a rally in support of TPS holders in Washington, D.C. Still, the Coalition never got much response out of the Trump administration. In October 2018, a federal judge in California temporarily stopped the administration from ending TPS for Haiti, El Salvador and Nicaragua. But in September 2020, an appeals court let them continue with their plans. As it stands, TPS for El Salvador will end on October 4, 2021.
But Reina-Landaverde isn’t discouraged. “The advice I give to everybody working on a campaign,” she says, “is that you always have to remain positive that you’ll reach your objective. My objective is to get permanent residency, and I’m so positive that one day, I will.”
Two weeks after Harvard shut down last March, Reina-Landaverde began to feel ill. The University hadn’t provided her with a mask in days; after learning that Reina-Landaverde had been going maskless, a student donated their own to her. In the meantime, she’d been forced to clean the same dorm with up to six custodians at the same time.
Soon after speaking to her doctor, she realized that her symptoms were consistent with Covid-19. She immediately began to quarantine. Across the University, dozens of other workers were also becoming ill, likely with the coronavirus. Reina-Landaverde herself remained at home for two weeks, resting. But her story went national.
Initially, Reina-Landaverde’s story was tweeted out by a former Harvard graduate student organizer, Marena Lin. From there, it was picked up by national news outlets, including NBC and Fox News.
Before founding Harvard TPS, Reina-Landaverde’s union activism had been mostly siloed within 32BJ. That word of her illness spread so quickly around the University and beyond was indicative of the broader ties between unions that she had cultivated in the process of organizing for TPS.
It was a level of organization that Harvard’s unions have come to rely on throughout the pandemic. Even after initial disputes with the University over PPE, paid sick leave, and other Covid-19 precautions were resolved, Harvard cut pay for some workers and began implementing layoffs in January.
In response, for the first time in a decade, Harvard’s unions made a conscious decision to organize together, likely in part because of Reina-Landaverde’s efforts. She is currently a shop steward and bargaining committee member with 32BJ. When she began contract negotiations last year, she leveraged the connections that she’d made with other union leaders through Harvard TPS to make sure that all unions were constantly in communication about what the University was offering them.
Recently, they all ratified contracts with the same anti-discrimination and harassment measures, in addition to union-specific benefits. 32BJ’s custodians have been guaranteed coverage of health care costs and a one-time bonus of up to $1,500. Likewise, 32BJ’s security guards ratified a one-year agreement with their contractor, Securitas, that also included health care benefits and a one-time bonus.
“Now, we have a good relationship between the unions. We can say what’s happening at the table and help each other,” she says. “I think this will be a good year, because it’s not just one group fighting — it’s the whole group.”
This isn’t the only thing that Harvard TPS has accomplished. After over a year of pressure, University President Lawrence S. Bacow finally made a public show of support for TPS holders in 2019 — he signed onto a letter to leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate urging them to act on legislation for TPS holders and DACA recipients. “When I saw the letter, I said: ‘Oh, this is because the job we’ve done in the Harvard community is working,” Reina-Landaverde says.
From February 21-23, hundreds of TPS holders and their supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., for a summit in support of permanent residency. Reina-Landaverde was there to march with them, and also to run for a spot on the executive committee of the National TPS Alliance. As an executive, she would oversee the Alliance’s strategy, planning national actions and campaigns for proponents of their movement.
She won, with the most votes of any candidate.
“Harvard TPS Coalition opened the doors for me … We’re the first place to organize a petition to the President of Harvard University and we got him to write three letters to Congress,” she says. “People recognize me.”
She has a lot of work ahead of her; the Biden administration, to her chagrin, still hasn’t acted either to provide a path for permanent residency to TPS holders or to extend TPS. To make time for it all, she will be stepping down from her position as 32BJ’s shop steward.
Still, she plans to remain an active member of the Harvard community; she knows that her organizing has always had its most enduring impacts on the lives of workers at the University. “I’m excited to continue the fight,” she says.
“When the workers move, you get anti-discrimination, you get benefits. The administration knows that, and they’re so afraid because Doris knows that too,” Childs says. “The presidents of Harvard cringe when they see her.”
— Staff writer Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ibuprofenaddict.
— Staff writer Gabrielle J. Pesantez can be reached at email@example.com.