Without Yield

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As week two of HUDS strike comes to a close, no deal in sight.

As of yesterday, Harvard University Dining Services workers will have been striking for one week. In that time, several more negotiation sessions between Local 26 (the union representing HUDS) and Harvard have been held, but no deal has been reached.

A poster at the Monday Oct 17 walkout.
A poster at the Monday Oct 17 walkout.

You can find HUDS workers picketing every day in the Science Center plaza. They march with Support the Strike and Unite Here Local 26 signs. Echoes of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down” pulse through the yard on any given day. With negotiations continuing and neither side yielding on their stances, there is no sign that the strike will end with a deal having been made.

On Monday evening, I had the opportunity to speak with Cindy Hegarty, who works in Currier, and Elpidia Borges, who works in Kirkland, during an event cosponsored by the Harvard University Global Health Forum and Harvard Student Labor Action Movement (HUGHF). Their overwhelming sentiment was that they were tired. Having drug on for fourteen days, they made clear that the workers were growing weary of spending their days protesting while not getting paid. “We want to go home and have something nice to say,” Borges said as they waited for news of the negotiations happening at the time of the event.

All this came following the walkout just hours before. At 12:30 pm Monday, hundreds of students walked out of class and gathered at the John Harvard statue for a half-hour rally in support of the strike. Students and workers spoke to the crowd through megaphones amid cheers of affirmation (and boos for the administration). John from Annenberg, who has for years made a point of learning every freshman’s name, spoke honestly about the importance of healthcare in his life as did several other workers. A Libyan student told her story of being introduced to a Libyan chef in Annenberg and feeling a sense of belonging at Harvard during her freshman year. At the corner of University Hall, a man with a Boston’s Local 26 cap and a megaphone continuously responded to the speakers “Thank you.”

Larry Summers, President Emeritus of Harvard and Professor for Economics 10 allegedly told students in his 12 o’clock lecture that if they intended to participate in the walkout, they should leave before class began. Several students from Ec10 were present, and one even spoke at the rally. It is unclear whether they left at Summers’ direction or still walked out at 12:30. This decree, however, epitomizes the widening divide between students and the administration on issues of the strike. As of now, over 3,000 students have signed the petition in support of the strike, and campus attitude seems to largely be on the side of workers. Tension between students and the administration has been mounting since the mandate on single-gender social organizations last spring, and the strike has done nothing but increase it.

Much like HUDS workers, though, students too are tired. With half the dining halls closed and those that are open serving raw meat and food with plastic and tin foil in it on more than one occasion, students have been eating out more frequently and eating more erratically. At the height of midterms season, the strained relationship with campus food offerings adds to an already stressful season. And the absence of the friendly faces of our favorite HUDS workers has left a feeling of emptiness in the houses.

The publicity emails for the HUGHF event read, “Take a Breather,” an apt command given the current state of affairs. Co-president of HUGHF Melanie Fu spoke about the organization’s desire to do something in support of the strike. “Healthcare is really important to us,” she said, “and we wanted a space for workers to be able to eat and students to be able to eat and for everyone to just talk about it.” Unlike the protests and actions of the strike, the HUGHF event was designed to be a place for students and workers to decompress and process the events of past two weeks.

“A lot has been happening,” Fu said. Indeed, a lot has happened. On Friday, students attempted to walk in a speech given by Drew Faust at an alumni event and eleven HUDS workers and union officials were arrested for blocking traffic in Harvard Square. I learned from Hegarty and Borges that they had their hearing Monday morning, and the charges were dropped.

Part of the overwhelming nature of the strike comes from the University’s reticence to speak about it. Fu pointed out that while the administration holds town halls on single-gender social organizations and other issues, they have remained mostly silent about the strike. Save for updates about the current dining hall situation, the University’s primary communication about the strike came in an email from Marilyn Hausammann, Vice President of Human Resources. The email sharply condemns the union as unwilling to “engage in constructive dialogue,” frames Harvard’s proposals as fair and even generous, and expresses the value of HUDS workers to the Harvard administration.

Just hours later, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) sent a follow-up email entitled “Let’s Get the Facts Straight.” SLAM’s email demonstrates the flaws with the Harvard proposal—namely, that Harvard will only offer an increase in wages with serious healthcare cuts—and reaffirms the importance of strike as a protest against this plan. And in truth, the Harvard story does not quite add up. Over 80% of HUDS workers attended the vote on whether to strike, and 97% of those in attendance voted for it. With numbers like that, it seems difficult to conclude that Harvard’s plan is fair in the eyes of those who will have to live with it.

Strikes do not happen because workers want them to happen. “It’s been great to get the walking in,” Hegarty joked with me. But Borges and Hegarty also talked about how workers are upset and growing worried about paying bills. It has been time consuming to protest, and without pay, many workers are struggling to make ends meet. Hegarty checked her phone several times during our conversation, waiting for updates. “They’ve been meeting in the Charles Hotel on the fifth or sixth floor for negotiations,” she said. “We protest outside there and [the union officials] wave down at us, and we wave at them.”

As students and workers look to the University to end the strike and the University does not yield, the campus continues to feel largely in a state of anxious suspension. With no certainty how negotiations will end, students continue to plan actions in support of the strike and workers continue to protest.

Hey Harvard, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.

Megan Sims ([email protected]) is supporting the strike, and you should too! http://tinyurl.com/supportthestrike