Business & Tech

Warren joins Harvard’s striking workers on the picket line

Octover 7, 2016 - Cambridge, MA Support the Strike signs. Harvard University dining hall employees gather at Science Center Plaza to dance in an effort to show their protest. Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe.
Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe
Harvard University’s dining hall employees have been on strike for more than a week.

Senator Elizabeth Warren took to the picket line Tuesday in support of Harvard University’s striking dining hall workers, while a school official indicated the administration and the workers union remain far apart in negotiations.

On the seventh day of the strike, Warren, a populist icon who was a professor of law at Harvard, visited the strikers and posed for a picture with them outside Harvard Business School. Her office declined to comment on her unannounced visit.

Meanwhile, after more than four months of sputtering contract discussions, there is little indication of progress between the workers and the school.

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In a letter released to students, faculty, and staff Tuesday, Marilyn Hausammann, vice president of human resources at the university, said Harvard administrators are “deeply disappointed that the union has declined to engage in a constructive dialogue.”

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Hausammann’s letter addressed a student body that has seen several on-campus groups voice support for the workers, with members marching and chanting alongside them and bringing food to the protesters.

Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents the 750 workers, shot back in an interview by accusing the school of launching “a public relations media campaign to try and vilify the union.”

Negotiations between the school and the union continued over the long holiday weekend, with meetings Saturday and Monday. No further sessions are scheduled, though the school is working on setting a date, according to Harvard spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga.

The workers on average make nearly $22 per hour, according to Harvard, and are requesting an annual minimum pay of $35,000, pointing out that most of the hourly workers are not paid during the between-semester periods.

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They are also resisting Harvard’s efforts to change their health care policies, arguing the policies would become more costly.

The union says that Harvard, which boasts a $35.7 billion endowment, can afford to meet its demands.

Union officials have said a stipend between semesters may be a path to reaching an agreement. But they said the offer from Harvard — between $150 and $250 per week to those willing to work, depending on seniority — was not enough.

In her letter, Hausammann said the union instead asked for a stipend Monday of up to $450 per week. She also said the union has “refused to participate in any meaningful dialogue” on potential changes to health insurance costs.

“We stand ready to continue to work with Local 26 and mediators to try to find a fair and reasonable resolution, but this will require engagement by the union on these issues,” Hausammann wrote.

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Lang disagreed with the characterization, saying the stipend proposal built off Harvard’s own earlier offer and that workers want to establish a “health care commission” to create a better policy for the next contract renewal. He also accused Harvard of not bringing any “decision makers” into negotiating sessions.

The school has closed some dining halls and adjusted hours during the strike. It is staffing the locations with managers and nonunion and temporary workers.

Union members who spend enough time picketing, meanwhile, are being paid about $200 per week through a union strike fund.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.