Harvard University’s dining hall workers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to authorize an indefinite strike in the next two weeks if the union and the administration cannot reach a contract settlement.
In a landslide 591 to 18 vote, the food service workers agreed to walk off the job if university administrators do not meet their core demands for better pay and affordable health care.
If a strike cannot be averted, it would be the first for Harvard food service workers since 1983, when the union staged a one-day work stoppage over wage issues.
The vote comes after four months of negotiations between administrators and UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing 750 food service workers across Harvard’s campuses.
Workers are seeking a guarantee from the university to commit to paying a minimum annual salary of $35,000 for workers who want the option of working a full 52 weeks a year. According to union officials, Harvard food service workers made less than $35,000 a year on average in 2015, and worked an average of only 38 weeks because of school breaks and cutbacks in hours.
They also contend that health care changes proposed by the university would shift too much of the cost on to workers.
Harvard administrators said in a statement that the university is committed to “bargaining in good faith towards an agreement that recognizes our colleagues’ important contributions,” adding that dining hall workers are aware of the university’s seasonal academic schedule and that they are still among “the highest paid in the region,” earning an average hourly wage of $21.89.
“Over the past 20 years, Harvard and Local 26 have bargained numerous contracts, a reflection of Harvard’s commitment to ensuring fair and competitive wages, health care, pensions, retiree health care, and other benefits, while also supporting the core mission of the university, today and into the future,” administrators said. “The fact that the average tenure of a Harvard dining hall worker is 12 years is a testament to the quality of work opportunities here.”
Citing rising health care costs, Harvard administrators said their current proposal has already been adopted by other unions representing 5,000 university employees and that it would equate to an average increase in health care costs for workers of less than $11 a month. The university also continues to provide health insurance to workers during summer and winter holiday breaks.
Both sides are scheduled to return to the bargaining table Friday, hours before the current contract is set to expire at midnight Saturday. The five-year contract officially expired in mid-June, but the union agreed to extend it during negotiations.
Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, said he does not expect a settlement will be reached Friday because both sides are “very far apart” on the issues.
“This is income inequality on the campus,” Lang said. “The workers are frustrated and feel disrespected and they’re saying enough is enough.”
The union agreed to Harvard’s request to meet with a federal mediator Sept. 27.Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.