The stuffed peppers stockpiled in Harvard’s freezers seemed like a final sign that UNITE HERE Local 26 and the Harvard Administration would not come to an agreement before Wednesday October 5th. That morning, a group of Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) employees and supporters gathered on Harvard’s Science Center Plaza before streaming through Harvard Yard to Massachusetts Hall, which houses Harvard President Drew Faust’s office. It was the first time since 1983 that HUDS workers had been on strike.

Bargaining sessions between the Local 26 union and the university started in early June. Harvard offered an updated labor contract that included wage increases and summer stipends but also unveiled a modified health care plan that many workers deemed unaffordable. An analysis by Harvard medical school students corroborated this sentiment, finding that Harvard’s proposed plan could threaten the financial security of a large number of workers. The bargaining process took even longer than expected. On September 15th, just two days before their contract with Harvard was due to expire, dining services workers voted 591-18 to strike if Harvard failed to meet their demands.

The strike lasted three weeks. Several dining halls closed, and those that remained open relied on HUDS managers and temporary hires. As the quality of food declined, many students chose to avoid dining halls and eat off-campus.

“The dining halls were generally emptier than usual and people felt like they weren’t as much of a social space anymore, and I think HUDS being missing was a large part of that,” said Alisha Ukani, a Harvard freshman and a member of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), in an interview with The Politic. On October 17th, students walked out of classes to attend a rally in solidarity with HUDS workers.  

 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage for food preparation and serving related occupations in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area is $27,690, while HUDS workers demanded an annual wage of at least $35,000. The disconnect between workers’ demands and the university’s initial offers stemmed in part from disagreement over how compensation provided by Harvard, whose endowment is worth around $35 billion, should compare to industry averages in the surrounding areas.

Marilyn Hausammann, Harvard’s Vice President for Human Resources, sent an email to students during the strike, repeatedly emphasizing that Harvard was already providing above-average compensation for its workers.

“On wages, the University has proposed an increase that would raise the average rate for dining workers to $24.08 per hour by the end of the contract. This is well in excess of the average hourly wage for Local 26 dining service workers elsewhere in eastern Massachusetts, $14.61 for general service employees,” she stated in the email.

However, union employees did not point to wages as their primary concern. Rather, they cited the proposed increase in out-of-pocket healthcare costs and the fact that many are left without work when dining halls closed for school breaks. Furthermore, Harvard’s wealth and reputation as an institution where academics work towards large-scale policies to improve public health and well-being were seen by many as further evidence that the university should improve compensation for its workers.

“In their emails, administrators will compare the HUDS workers’ wages to places like McDonald’s, but if Harvard wants to be a leader in so many different areas, why is it comparing itself to McDonald’s?” asked Ukani.

Students faced the closure of dining halls and issues with food safety that included, according to the Harvard Crimson, pieces of meat found in the ostensibly vegetarian banana bread pudding. Still, Harvard’s student body largely supported the strike. Hundreds of students–encouraged by members of SLAM, who entered large classes and stood up so that others would feel comfortable joining them–walked out of their classes on the afternoon of Monday, October 24th for the second time in as many weeks. The walkout, which began at 2 pm, transitioned into a sit-in that lasted through the afternoon and evening until officers asked people to leave around 10:30 pm.

“In the first few hours of the sit-in, there was more progress in negotiations than there had been in the past 5 months. You could definitely see a large response from Harvard when there was massive student involvement,” Ukani said. At 1:05 the next morning, Local 26 and Harvard reached a tentative agreement, ending the strike.

Dining services employees voted 573-1 to ratify a five-year contract. Full-time dining services workers will earn at least $35,000 a year, with Harvard covering increased copayments until 2021. Workers will also receive stipends if they are available to work during summer months and will be given retroactive wage increases of 2.5% per year. The university also agreed to create a Diversity and Equality Committee in order to address persistent issues related to racial and gender-based inequality.  According to Brian Lang, the President of Boston’s Local 26, the union reached every goal they had set to achieve in the negotiations.  

Harvard’s history of labor relations, most recent chapter included, seems rosy when compared to Yale’s.  

In 2003, an article in the New York Times quoted John Wilhelm, then president of the hotel and restaurant employees’ union, as saying, “It’s a sad commentary that Yale has the worst labor relations so far as I know of any employer in America other than Major League Baseball.” This was not an uncommon sentiment.  

In an interview with The Politic, John DeStefano, who served as mayor of New Haven from 1994 to 2013 and now lectures in Yale’s political science department, spoke about these often inimical relations. “The difference here was the willingness of the two sides to have very aggressive fights,” he said.

Tensions between Yale union locals and the Yale corporation flared periodically but especially during times of financial trouble. Between 1968 and 2003, workers at Yale went on strike eight times. The antagonism between labor and the Yale administration is often attributed to Yale’s role as an institution characterized both by inherent elitism and by centrality to New Haven’s labor market.

“There was a sense that unions don’t belong on a college campus,” De Stefano said. “There were times that the fights were bitter and angry and personal, and I don’t think that Bartlett Giamatti enjoyed being president of Yale, in part because the financial condition of the university in the ‘80s sucked. I just think there was a lot of mutual contempt that was stoked and became part of the culture of the relationship.”

Like those at Harvard, unions at Yale seized upon the image of the university as an enlightened, forward-thinking institution and contrasted those values with how workers were being treated.  Unions were also able to leverage Yale’s role as New Haven’s largest employer to involve the surrounding community in their fight.  Although Yale’s hiring rates are low, it employs thousands of residents in a city where the unemployment rate is significantly higher than the national average.  

During Richard Levin’s tenure as president, union relations finally improved. In 2003, Yale unions planned a five-day long strike that ended up lasting for three weeks. The walkout occurred at the beginning of the school year. During the strike, most dining halls closed and picket lines bisected campus, becoming physical manifestations of the divide between the unions and the Yale administration. At that point, recounted DeStefano, both sides decided to avoid conflict. Yale’s strong financial performance at the time enabled it to give workers raises and significantly increased pensions. In return, unions made concessions regarding the use of non-union labor.

A long stretch of peaceful cooperation followed. In 2009 and 2012, New Haven Locals 34 and 35 renewed without union action what had become one of the most desirable contracts in the nation, a success comparable to HUDS workers’ recently negotiated contract.  However, New Haven’s economic troubles persisted, especially through the 2008 economic crisis, as did the sometimes uncomfortable town and gown relationship between the university and the city.  

In the past two years, differences between Yale’s unions and administration have emerged once again as Yale has cut operating expenses and resisted graduate students’ attempts to unionize. In September of 2014, Yale’s unions filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Yale had committed unfair labor practices.  

Yale’s labor contracts are negotiated every four years, and the new deadline is January 20, 2017. This fall, unions coordinated demonstrations for the first time since 2004, attempting to boost their visibility on campus and in the community.  As negotiations continue, unions are pushing back against the university’s budget cuts, which they say have left fewer employees responsible for more work. With negotiations for the two previous contracts reaching an agreement six months before the deadlines, both Yale and its unions are hopeful that they will be able to avoid a strike come January.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that John DeStefano served as mayor of New Haven from 1994 to 2003. He actually served from 1994 to 2013.