Harvard dining hall workers’ strike gains momentum
UNITE HERE Local 26.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 22—At first the voices of a few hundred could be heard over the howling wind and rain on Cambridge Common, but within an hour over 1,000 were chanting in unison: “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” This was the scene of the 18th day of the historic UNITE HERE Local 26 Harvard dining hall workers’ strike, which has already seen eleven women workers arrested.

Although Harvard is the world’s richest university, boasting a 35.7 billion-dollar endowment and over $60 million net surplus last year, it doesn’t share the wealth with its workers.  As a nonprofit organization with an operating budget larger than some countries, Harvard hires dining hall workers for only part of the year, and lays them off.

Workers are denied unemployment benefits because Harvard University is classified as a nonprofit. Adding insult to injury, these low wage workers are now being asked by Harvard’s administration to pay more for basic medical services, including preventative care.

After five laborious months of negotiations, Harvard’s dining hall workers have been on strike since October 5 to demand $35,000 a year and to be able to take their kids to the doctor without fear. This is the first time dining hall workers have walked out of negotiations, and the first strike of any kind at Harvard since 1983.

In a show of strong support, other unions including the Teamsters Local 25 and other labor organizations, joined hundreds of UNITE Local 26 workers and union brothers and sisters from UNITE/HERE locals 33, 34 and 35 from Yale University in Connecticut converged to rally solidarity and support for the strikers.

After the blaring horns of a Teamsters big rig finished its salute to the strikers, Teamsters Local 25 President Sean M. O’Brien assailed what he called the “white-collar crime syndicate” which runs Harvard and big corporations all over the country, and assured the Harvard cafeteria workers they have the support of 1.4 million Teamsters. As an expression of that solidarity, O’Brien announced the Teamsters would provide a donation of $10,000 to the strike fund.  Because these low-wage dining hall workers lack a real safety net to survive a protracted strike, it will be critical that other unions follow with their own strike funds and donations.

The rally then took to the streets, blocking traffic both ways on Massachusetts Avenue, as the picketers and their many allies made their way to continue the rally in front of Cambridge City Hall.

But as much as the show of solidarity on the streets of Cambridge helped carry the strikers’ message to Harvard, no one is suffering any illusions about the tenacity and miserliness of the administration. UNITE HERE Local 26 is in great need of material support for workers on strike. Funds go towards workers’ groceries, diapers, utility bills, mortgage payments, rent, car payments, etc. The fund is administered by worker leaders who are striking and Unite Here Local 26. To make a contribution, visit this link: https://actionnetwork.org/fundraising/local-26-strike-assistance-fund


Donald Donato
Donald Donato

Donald Donato is a writer appearing in People’s World, Britain's Morning Star and the social science journal International Critical Thought (Routledge). For nearly 30 years, he has written about social and economic development as a planner, field researcher, development project manager, an adviser for research, publications, and communications, and a freelance journalist. Donato is a member of the National Writers Union-UAW Local 1981.