Harvard University’s cafeteria
workers have been on strike for more than two weeks now, the first strike at the school in more than 30 years.
Although the labor standoff in Cambridge involves one of the world’s most prestigious universities, it follows a familiar pattern: a large institution trying to save money on the backs of its lowest-paid workers.
Harvard, a nonprofit that takes millions in annual tax breaks from Boston and Cambridge, recently announced that a $10 million donation will fund a study of poverty, inequality, and race in Greater Boston. There’s no time like the present to model good policy in the real world. The growing chorus of voices inside and outside the university calling on Harvard to revisit the deal is right: A living wage is an important part of the regional economy.
About 750 workers remain off the job as the strike enters its fourth week, with the dispute partially centered on wages and a plan to impose higher health insurance costs. Harvard’s proposal would increase workers’ out-of-pocket costs and copayments for nearly all health services. Copayments for a single primary care visit would rise from $15 to $25, and copayments for outpatient hospital care would rise from zero to $100. The workers, who earn an average of $32,000 a year, would benefit from a lower monthly premium, but the savings would not be enough to offset the increase in other costs.
Harvard argues that its largest union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, agreed to the same deal. But the members of HUCTW, who work in
libraries, labs, and other technical jobs, earn a higher base salary than those who prepare and serve the food at the school’s cafeterias and dining halls.
Cafeteria workers — as other employees on campus — don’t typically work during the winter or summer breaks. Harvard has offered them summer stipends of $150 to $250 a week, but those have been rejected by UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing the
Harvard officials have noted that the health care plans are consistent and competitive with the market. That may be true, but Harvard is more than just a business. A living hourly wage in the Boston metro region is about $30 if, say, you’re a single mother with two children. But when you work only for 38 weeks a year, an hourly wage of $22 (which is what the dining workers are making on average) translates into the same annual income as someone who makes $16 an hour. Add higher medical copayments and out-of-pocket costs, and health care
becomes unaffordable, which for low-income workers can mean worsening outcomes.
The timing of the strike packs at least a bit of irony at a university renowned for its study of income inequality and poverty. “Here we have a benefactor who’s donated $2
million to study race relations when an endemic outcome of centuries of racism is protesting outside Harvard’s windows,” says Sandhira Wijayaratne, a Harvard Medical School student who’s part of the Racial Justice Coalition on campus supporting the cafeteria workers’ strike. Many of the cafeteria workers are immigrants, and more than half identify as people of color. “If the university really wants to demonstrate its commitment to racial equity, a strong first step would be to pay its dining workers fairly and provide them with affordable health insurance.”
Your move, Harvard.