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Public Demonstrations: How Harvard Dining Hall Workers Won Their Demands

DIning hall workers and supporters demonstrating in the rain on October 22, 2016 in Harvard Square
phillip martin

Harvard dining hall workers are back on the job after voting to ratify a new contract. The vote was 583 to 1. 

To meet Cambridge/Boston’s high cost of living the union demanded that the university increase the average wage from $33,800 to $35,000 a year. Harvard agreed. The university also agreed to provide additional compensation to workers during the summer months when regular school closes and dining hall employees are laid off. Harvard also dropped a plan that would have increased out-of-pocket expenses for doctor visits and agreed to cover eighty-seven percent of the premiums for workers earning less than $55,000.

The culmination of the strike, which began on October 5th, was a resounding victory for UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing more than 700 food service workers at America’s richest university.

DIning hall workers and supporters demonstrating in the rain on October 22, 2016 in Harvard Square
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Harvard described the contract as "a reasonable resolution to negotiations." But the strike proved to be deeply embarrassing to a university with a  $36 billion endowment at a time when income inequality has become a major public concern. 

Union signs: "If we don't get it, shut it down."
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Editorial writers nationwide, including those at the Boston Globe were unsparing. The Globe excoriated the university for “trying to save money on the backs of its lowest-paid workers.”  A late-hour agreement was announced the next day after three weeks of negotiations.

Organizers of the strike—the first in 33 years—formed alliances early on with students, fellow unionists, and the public. 

Fourteen days after picket lines went up around the university, nine striking dining hall workers—in a pre-choreographed action—were arrested during a sit-in in Harvard Square.  Photos of the protesters—all women—along with two union officials, were snapped and distributed on social media.  The protest the next day was even larger with more students and local residents taking part.  

On Saturday October 22, three weeks into the strike, one thousand Harvard University dining hall workers and supporters marched in a steady rain from Harvard Square to Cambridge City Hall. Union spokesman, Jonah Zinn told WGBH that day :

“Most of our members make less than 30 thousand dollars a year.  Many only work seven months a year because Harvard closes a lot of the dining halls in the summer.  They’re fighting us tooth nail over these issues, which amount to pennies for them, but really life changing amounts of money for us.”   


Harvard defended its wage scale and argued that at 22 dollars per hour, the school’s dining hall workers were better compensated than food service workers in comparable positions.  

Dining hall workers hold a sit-in in Harvard Square 14 days after the strike was called.

Hundreds of Harvard students, those served on a daily basis by the workers, didn’t buy it.  And on Monday October 24 they walked out of class at 2pm in a coordinated action with the union members. 

His voice bellowing through a bullhorn, Harvard Senior Jonathan Roberts spoke to a multi-racial throng of students in Harvard Yard.


“They’re fighting to make sure that the right to have affordable health care is known.  They’re fighting to make sure the right to have fair wages is known, because if it can’t happen at Harvard University –the most affluent educational institution in the world— then where can it happen,” he said to applause.

Harvard Senior Jonathan Roberts spoke to a multi-racial throng of students in Harvard Yard. “They’re fighting to make sure that the right to have affordable health care is known."
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James Vincent listened, nodded and shook hands of the students all around him. He has prepared food for them for 29 years.

He has seen more eggs and bacon, steaks and fries than almost anyone over the course of the nearly three decades he has worked for Harvard’s dining hall services. But, he said, he had little to show for it.  

“The university is not doing enough to take care of us. We need affordable health care.  We need all year round work not just for the managers, but for all the dining hall staff.” 

That's why, he said—marching that day from Harvard Square to a rally in Harvard Yard— “he had no choice” but to go on strike.  Vincent says the summers were especially hard.

Students and dining hall workers at a student rally on Monday, Oct 24
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“We have to either go out and look for work or we have to wait until we open again. Some of us get work and some us don’t.   So it makes it hard to pay you rent. To pay your car payments.  You make your mortgage payment. Everything.”  

Walking past the seat of power at Harvard—Massachusetts Hall—James Vincent said he was looking forward to getting back to cooking and serving –a job he has done day and night and during the worst possible weather.

“We have to come in here during the state of emergency and holidays to take care of students.  And they [Harvard] should be taking care of us; giving us good health care so that we can be healthy to work cause we preparing food. Nothing like having a healthy group of cooks and employees in the kitchen working to take care of the students.”


The next day Harvard University reached a tentative agreement that was ratified on Wednesday.   

James Vincent was among those casting a “yes” vote at the First Parish Church in Harvard Square.

Was the three-week strike worth it, he was asked. 

“Oh, yeah, you better believe it”, he said. 

Cafeteria workers celebrating their victory outside First Parish Church in Harvard Square
Savannah I. Whaley


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