Harvard University's food service workers have been on strike since October 5, and there's no clear end in sight. The university is still pushing back against their union's demands: a minimum annual salary of $35,000, and no price hikes for workers on the school's healthcare plan.
As the strike drags on, the university has resorted to staffing open dining halls with managers, temporary employees, and administrative workers, who were asked to volunteer their time serving food and swiping dining cards. A small group of students has even been asked by college administrators to volunteer as striking workers walk on picket lines outside, two students said.
The strike, Harvard's first in decades, has drawn outsized attention because of the school's enormous endowment, which is over $35 billion, making it by far the world's richest university. A viral Tweet last week pointed out that Harvard had just received a $10 million grant to study poverty in the Boston area as its food service employees were on strike for what they called a "living wage."
Neither Harvard nor the union appears to have budged much in negotiations. Harvard has been emphatic that it is offering dining hall workers a fair deal: a wage that is the highest among food service workers in the Boston area, a Harvard spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News, and a healthcare plan that — while it increases some costs — has been accepted by thousands of other unionized Harvard workers.
The university sent an email to students and staff last week that presented the food service workers' union as inflexible, rejecting an offer of an hourly wage and a summer stipend that would have pushed most employees well over the $35,000 salary the union is asking for full-time workers. On average, the university says food service workers make $34,000; the union says that number is actually $31,000.
A union representative said the call for a $35,000 salary is about "stability." With long breaks in winter, summer, and spring, workers' hours can vary widely, and many who are available to work full-time end up falling short of a living wage.
Students have been vocally supportive of the strike on campus, with more than 3,000 undergraduates — around half of the undergraduate student body — signing a petition in support of striking employees. At an event Monday, a group of more than a hundred undergraduates walked out of the school's most popular course, an introductory economics class — interrupting a guest lecture taught by the prominent economist Larry Summers. They joined a throng of hundreds of other students on Harvard Yard, including at least one professor who had apparently walked out of his own class.
Others have been working to supply dining hall employees with food and other supplies, handing out Harvard's own boxed dining hall lunches to workers on the picket line and using university funds for student groups to buy pizzas.
"We've been seeing a lot of student support because undergraduates have these personal connections to dining hall workers," said Anwar Omeish, a Harvard sophomore involved with the strike. "Especially for students who are low income, or students of color, workers really play a big role in college life. The strike has been a really dramatic change."
As the strike drags on, students have also complained of poor and even unsafe food quality in the dining halls that remain open, which have switched to using plastic utensils and are stocked partly with boxed lunches. Harvard said it was regularly monitoring food quality in dining halls and that a health and safety inspection had found no problems with the food.
But labor activists on campus have been collecting students' accounts of food issues — including, on Facebook, a photograph of a chunk of meat sitting in a trough of dining hall banana pudding.