The unfortunate saga of Harvard and its Dining Services.
It may appear that the strike by Harvard’s dining services employees has subdued in the last week. Appearances can indeed be misleading.
As the university has tried to ensure that meals in the dining halls grow in quality as the strike wears on—understandably so, given the the initial displacement in the supply-chain—it has given some students the false impression that the impact of the strike on their lives has gotten progressively minimal. In fact, the last couple of days have seen the most substantial developments in negotiations between the leaders of UNITE HERE Local 26, and the Harvard administration.
Nearly 5 days after the Dean of Administration and Finance, Sheila C. Thimba, wrote in an email to the college that “hopeful signs of progress were visible” at the negotiations, the Vice-President of the university, Katie Lapp, wrote to the college that a “tentative agreement” had been reached for Local 26 to review.
The university has attempted to hold firm on its position of guaranteeing the dining services employees a better deal than they have had until now. They claim that the union’s chief concerns, which have been changes in the dining workers’ wages and health insurance plans, have been difficult for the university to completely accede to in a time of “constrained resources.” Many around campus have found this to be an unacceptable defense, given the seemingly exorbitant resources that th-e university commands.
However, such a simplistic assessment of the situation may be a distraction from the fact that the university has suffered substantial losses to its endowment this year, and is likely to attempt cutting costs to continue its pursuit of academic excellence—undoubtedly its primary prerogative. If it is difficult to assess the precise implications that acceding to the union’s demands would have on the university’s budget, so too is it to examine the claims that the HUDS workers are being denied any form of “justice”. Skeptics on either side have been cautious of terming this strike as some sort of class warfare, for it simply isn’t.
Earlier this month, The Boston Globe cautioned against viewing the dining services employees’ strike as part of a larger disenchantment with the 1%. While it may seem innocuous to relate the university administration with other employers providing employees with subpar wages across the country, to do so would be utterly incorrect. As per the contract that expired most recently, Harvard pays the average dining hall worker $22/hour, which is well above the state average of $10.69 in the food industry. In fact, most employers do not even offer health benefits to workers in this industry, which makes Harvard at best a generous employer given the current market. In fact, to argue that the university is finding itself being unfairly targeted, due to the seemingly awkward public relations battle it is having to fight as a result of the strike, may well be a reasonable understanding of the current state of affairs.
The student opinion, meanwhile, has been difficult to assess. Initially, as the strike began, several students found it inconvenient to be paying for food that was manifestly worse in quality than what they were accustomed to. Conversely, some students were impassioned by the cause of the strike, standing by several of the HUDS workers in picket lines in the mornings before class. Over time, however, much of the sentiment seems to have dissolved, rather sadly, into indifference. With consistent improvement in the dining services over the course of the strike, and the continual frustration at the negotiations, many have grown to accept the strike as the new normal. Many, though, have noticed a divergence in views over time. Megan Sims’18, who participated in the student sit-in in support of the strike notes that “While increasing portions of the student body have become indifferent and weary of the campus’s tense food situation, those of us who have been more involved in actions in support of the strike have only strengthened our resolves.”
For the university and the workers, however, the stakes remain as high as ever. Erring on either side could mean sacrificing high wages for another five years, or a public relations blunder that could occupy an unfortunate page in the university’s history. Over the next few days, as the negotiations—hopefully—draw to a close, we will continue to monitor the situation and try and evaluate the proposals on either side. Until then, we, like all of you, continue to hope that better sense prevails.
Pulkit Agarwal (email@example.com) just wants to be able to eat in the Lowell Dining Hall again!