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Harvard dining hall strike extends into third day, contract talks planned

Harvard University dining hall employees gathered at Science Center Plaza to dance in an effort to show their protest.
Harvard University dining hall employees gathered at Science Center Plaza to dance in an effort to show their protest. Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Harvard University administrators and union officials representing striking campus dining hall workers met separately with mediators Friday afternoon, but the two sides failed to reach a deal that would end a three-day work stoppage.

The 750 workers — who are demanding higher, year-round pay and a freeze on increases to health insurance premiums — will now continue to picket into the weekend, including at Saturday’s Harvard-Cornell University football game and Sunday’s HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands in Somerville, according to union leaders.

Harvard, meanwhile, warned students that only limited dining hall service would be available this weekend, as managers, other Harvard employees, and temporary agency workers scramble to fill the shifts abandoned by the strikers.

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Representatives of Harvard and the union, UNITE HERE Local 26, each said they will meet with mediators again on Saturday. The talks are being brokered by MIT professor emeritus Robert McKersie and Harvard professor Lawrence Katz.

A Harvard spokeswoman declined to comment on Friday’s negotiations. The university has previously argued that it already compensates workers generously. Earlier this week, workers rejected Harvard’s offer of an increase in average wages from about $22 an hour to $24 an hour over five years; a modified health insurance plan that would reduce costs for lower-income workers; and a summer stipend for longtime employees.

Brian Lang, the union’s president, said in an interview that no progress was made on Friday, with discussions comprised mostly of briefing the mediators on the workers’ demands: a base annual wage of $35,000 and no increases in health insurance premiums. He said the strikers — who are receiving $200 a week from a union fund during the strike — were resolute and prepared to stay off the job as long as necessary

“To us, at this point, it’s all a matter of Harvard developing the will to settle this,” he said. “We know they have the means.”

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Harvard students, Lang said, largely support the workers, a fact he attributed to their personal relationships with the workers and their interest in the larger national discussion about income inequality. He blasted administrators at the wealthy school for seeking “more profits.”

“There’s a contradiction and a struggle going on within Harvard right now that this strike is highlighting,” Lang said. “There’s the human-values side of the organization and then there’s the administration. I’m confident the human-values side is going to win out.”

Harvard’s winter and summer breaks, when most of the dining hall employees go unpaid, are key sticking points in the labor fight. Workers are unable to collect unemployment during those periods. The union is also asking for contract language to form a task force to deal with issues of racism, Lang said.

Jorge Mendes, who has worked in Harvard dining halls for 15 years, said Friday that workers struggle to find other jobs during school breaks because employers are less likely to hire for the short periods of time between semesters. The possibility of higher health care costs further compounds the problem, he said.

“What are we going to bring home if we have to worry about paying the doctor?” he said from the picket line.

Some employees became alarmed Friday when their weekly paychecks were not deposited on time. However, a Harvard spokeswoman said the problem was due to power outages at a Florida data center caused by Hurricane Matthew, and that the issue was resolved before noon.

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Several student groups and faculty members have offered their support to the striking workers. Outside the main freshman dining hall on Friday, students brought pastries and apples to the protesting workers who usually feed them. The students have been bringing food and coffee regularly, according to the workers.

The strike is the first at Harvard since 1983, when food service workers held a one-day work stoppage.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.