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Harvard dining hall workers set to strike Wednesday

Kinwanna Devonish, a worker at Harvard University, carried picket signs Tuesday in preparation for a strike in Cambridge.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Dining hall workers at Harvard University say they will go on strike Wednesday after failing to reach a contract agreement with administrators. It would be the first strike at the institution since 1983, when food service workers staged a one-day work stoppage over wages.

Picketing is scheduled to start at 6 a.m. at several campus locations, followed by a rally at 9 a.m. at the Harvard Science Center on Oxford Street. Unlike the last strike 33 years ago, which happened in June, this one is set to occur while classes are in session, withstudents are preparing for midterm exams.

Because of the strike, only some dining halls will open Wednesday for breakfast. Cabot House, Dunster House, and Kirkland House dining halls will be closed, according to a memo from dean of students Katherine O’Dair.


Harvard administrators say they have a contingency plan to ensure all students are fed. The school urged students to check the dining services Web page for updates during the strike. Food service workers have reported seeing an increase in stockpiles of frozen food in the dining halls, union officials said.

Across campus, Harvard University Dining Services provides approximately 25,000 meals a day to students, faculty, and staff.

The strike declaration came after negotiations with a federal mediator Tuesday failed to produce a new contract. The food service workers’ contract ended Sept. 17, after the union agreed to extend it beyond its original expiration in June.

Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing 750 food service workers, said the two sides could not agree on wages or health care. Negotiations fell apart Tuesday evening, the 19th meeting in five months.

“I think it’s quite simple. Harvard, although they have the means to settle this, it doesn’t seem they have the will,” Lang said moments after contract talks ended. “And [workers] are determined and looking forward to demonstrating that determination [Wednesday] when we strike. . . . We hope the forces of fairness and equality are going to prevail.”


Both administrators and union officials agreed to resume talks soon, but no date has been set. Administrators suggested, and the union agreed, that Harvard economics professor Lawrence Katz and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus of management Robert McKersie join the talks as mediators when negotiations resume, Lang said.

Both professors helped negotiate Harvard’s contract with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, the school’s largest union, in January. That contract included one of the health care options presented to the food service workers during negotiations, said Harvard spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga.

In a statement, Harvard said, “We have proposed creative solutions to issues presented by the union, and hoped union representatives would contribute to finding creative, workable solutions at the negotiation table. They have been unwilling to do so. . . . We are disappointed that they have been more interested in planning a strike than working on a solution that meets the needs of their members and the wider community. Harvard is now focused on working to mitigate disruption to our community members, many of whom rely on Harvard University Dining Services for their on-campus meals.”

Harvard administrators offered to continue negotiations until 11:59 p.m., but the union walked away at 5:30 p.m., the university said.


Dining hall workers, preparing Tuesday for a strike in Cambridge, are seeking increases in wages and protection against rising health care costs.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The union is pushing for a minimum annual salary of $35,000 for workers who want to work a full calendar year, instead of the shorter academic cycle. It is also asking the university to retain current health care benefits and not pass proposed cost increases onto workers.

School administrators offered workers a 10 percent wage increase over five years that would have raised average hourly wages from $21.89 to $24.08, according to an e-mail sent to administrators Monday from Marilyn Hausammann, human resources vice president.

Harvard negotiators also proposed paying a stipend to employees who remain available to work during the summer, when the school is not in its regular academic session. The stipend would pay $250 a week to employees with more than 20 years of service and $150 to those with at least five years. The pay would be for “employees who are available to work during summer break, even if there are no open shifts,” during months when “the majority of dining halls are closed.”

Administrators also argued that rising health care costs have prompted them to ask all union workers to contribute more toward coverage. The university has offered several different proposals on health cost-sharing and offered to hold off implementing them until 2018.

Lang said the university has settled contracts with higher-wage workers for annual wage increases of at least 3 percent, yet it only offered food workers 2 percent a year. He said the union would be open to summer and January term stipends for workers but Harvard’s offer was too low.


On health care coverage, Lang said the average worker already pays $3,000 a year in premiums, about 10 percent of gross income for many workers.

About 6,600 Harvard undergrads are on a mandatory school meal plan. The plan costs $6,057 for the school year, but the majority of students pay much less or nothing because they’re on financial aid, according to the school. Tuition, including fees, room, and board, total $63,025. Information on how many graduate students participate in meal plans was not available.

During negotiations, student organizations came out in support of the dining hall workers. A Harvard student penned a piece for The Washington Post saying students were hoarding fruit and other food, while the Harvard Crimson posted a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving “a [Harvard University Dining Services] apocalypse.”

The Harvard Undergraduate Council, the elected body that represents students, voted Sunday to endorse the workers’ strike. The Harvard Student Labor Action Movement is encouraging students to sign a supporting petition and join workers on the picket lines. The group is also asking students to “act with your wallet” and not eat at the dining halls during the strike.

Some Harvard Medical School students penned an editorial in support of the food workers’ demands for better wages.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.