Business & Tech

Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 percent. It’s not.

A union official addressed the crowd in the Science Center Plaza.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
A union official addressed the crowd in the Science Center Plaza.

The first strike at Harvard University in more than 30 years pits the world’s richest university against hundreds of food service workers who walked off their jobs Wednesday after months of negotiations failed to produce a new contract.

The dispute could easily be seen as a showdown between the 1 percent and low-paid service workers: Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment is bigger than the economies of nearly 100 countries, while the striking union members are among millions of Americans struggling in a era of growing income inequality.

But the situation is far more complex, and raises questions of fair off-season compensation and who should bear the ever-rising costs of health care.

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Harvard is quick to point out that its average dining hall worker makes nearly $22 an hour. The latest offer to workers would increase wages to more than $24 a hour by the end of the five-year contract, according to university spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga.

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The national fight for a $15 minimum wage and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign brought income inequality issues to the fore of public discussion, said Robert Nakosteen, an economics professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Yet compared to the broader food industry, where employers may not provide any health care benefits and the average wage in Massachusetts was $10.69 last year, the pay at Harvard appears good, he said.

“Is Harvard being pressed here to be a trendsetter?” Nakosteen asked. “In a sense, they’re being scapegoated for the ills of all society and they’re actually pretty generous.”

UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing 750 food service workers at Harvard, does not dispute that the school’s hourly dining hall wages are the highest in the region. But that argument misses the point, said local president Brian Lang.

“It’s convenient for Harvard to talk about hourly wage when really what we’re talking about is annual income,” Lang said.

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With winter and summer academic breaks factored in, employees face long periods without work. Most of the employees are not eligible for unemployment between school years, he said.

The workers believe anybody available to work throughout the year should be paid at least $35,000. Today, the average worker makes about $30,000 a year, Lang said.

Harvard showed some flexibility on the issue in the latest contract discussions, offering weekly stipends to workers even if no shifts are available. Summer stipends may be the path to a settlement, but the current offer is too low, Lang said.

The union also objects to proposed changes in workers’ health care policies, because it would require more out-of-pocket payments. Lang said union members already pay upward of $3,000 a year in health care premiums — an “exorbitant” rate, he said.

Harvard said in a statement that the costs of health care have increased everywhere and the situation is “no different” at the school. The university’s proposal would set lower premium rates for lower-wage workers and has been accepted by thousands of other union workers on campus, the statement said.

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But the issues play into one another, Lang said. Though workers at other Boston-area dining halls — many of whom are also represented by UNITE HERE — may make less money per hour, they also pay less in health care. And, unlike most of Harvard’s workers, they work for third-party contractors rather than the university iteslf, meaning they can collect unemployment between semesters, he said.

No negotiating sessions were held Wednesday, but they will likely resume this week while picket lines persist.

The administration and the union have agreed to enlist Harvard professor Lawrence Katz and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus Robert McKersie as mediators, Lang said.

On Wednesday, food service employees and student protesters began gathering around Harvard dining halls by 5 a.m. Within hours, hundreds of employees were marching around Harvard Yard and along Massachusetts Avenue, chanting and drumming on orange buckets.

“Hey, Harvard, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” the protesters shouted.

The strike is Harvard’s first since June 1983, when dining employees held a one-day work stoppage, according to deLuzuriaga, the school’s spokeswoman. That walkout did not occur while classes were in session.

Ahead of the stoppage, the workers garnered the support of several student groups.

“They ensure we’re healthy year round and now as students it’s our turn to ensure [dining service] workers remain healthy and are able to afford health care for their families,” said Grace Evans, a sophomore member of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement.

Because of the labor action, some dining halls were closed Wednesday, but most were open. The dining halls are being staffed by dining services managers, nonunion employees, and temporary workers, deLuzuriaga said.

On Facebook, the Student Labor Action Movement said undergraduates should not “feel bad about getting food in the dining halls.”

“Instead, you should use your meal plan to support workers by eating in d-halls and taking your food to the picket line to share with workers,” the group posted Tuesday night.

About 25,000 daily meals are served across Harvard’s dining halls, deLuzuriaga said. Meal plans at are mandatory for undergraduates at Harvard, where total costs this school year will run students $63,025 — though many students receive financial aid.

Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the value of Harvard’s endowment.