Harvard Workers Went On Strike and Won—Here’s How They Did It, and How Students Helped

Harvard Workers Went On Strike and Won—Here’s How They Did It, and How Students Helped

Harvard Workers Went On Strike and Won—Here’s How They Did It, and How Students Helped

Solidarity statements and op-eds are important, but direct actions are essential.


Last night, Harvard University Dining Service (HUDS) workers ratified a new contract with the university following a historic strike that lasted 20 days. “I can report, coming out of our contract ratification meeting, that we achieved every goal without exception,” said Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, the union represented the workers in the negotiations. The contract, which raises the minimum pay for dining workers, requires Harvard to pay for any increases in health-care co-pays, and provides fair compensation for workers facing seasonal layoffs during the summer, is major victory for HUDS workers and their allies on campus.

The workers had been in contract negotiations with the Harvard Corporation since May of this year, but the parties reached a brick wall in late September as the administration refused to budge on key worker demands, including fair healthcare and a sustainable yearly salary. Following the stalemate in negotiations, the HUDS workers voted 97 percent in favor of reviving the strike on Harvard’s campus for the first time in over 30 years. Over the course of the strike, they built a strong, united front that included students, faculty, clerical and technical staff, and lower-level administrators. The extended, coordinated actions of these groups ultimately forced the administration to put forth a contract that granted the workers’ core demands, with no concessions from the union. This victory offers crucial lessons for student activists organizing in solidarity with campus workers.2

Following the announcement of the strike, which began on September 17 when the workers’ contract expired, more than a dozen student organizations at Harvard Law School released a statement in solidarity with the workers, and a petition started by the undergraduate Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) garnered more than 3,000 student signatures in support of the workers’ demands. Students also held multiple walk-outs and sit-ins led by SLAM, and joint student-worker rallies attracted more than a thousand participants. One of the organizations leading the student effort at the law school, Reclaim Harvard Law, also released a bilingual statement specifically addressing the racial justice component of the workers’ struggle.

Following these actions, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, the Law School Student Government, the Kennedy School Student Government, the Crimson Editorial Board, the Cambridge City Council, the Boston City Council, and The Boston Globe all published official endorsements of the HUDS strike. The National Body of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) also released a fierce statement of support, and the World Federation of Trade Unionists proclaimed solidarity with the HUDS workers at their recent meeting in South Africa.

The Harvard administration, on the other hand, actively discouraged students from supporting the strike, and at one point called on some of the student employees to cross the picket line and scab for the HUDS workers. For those familiar with Harvard’s long history of anti-labor practices and policies, these most recent actions should come as no surprise. One former president of the university, A. Abbot Lowell, even offered students passing grades on their midterm exams if they would agree to reinforce the Massachusetts state militia in harassing striking workers during the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912. Though some students accepted the administration’s offer, the Harvard Socialist Club sent members to reinforce the workers’ picket line and donated money to the strikers. Students at Harvard followed in that legacy of solidarity when they themselves joined the HUDS picket lines and brought food for the strikers.5

Despite these demonstrations of student support for the workers’ struggle, however, the administration continued to ignore the workers’ demands. As a result, students and workers were forced to escalate our tactics.6

First, UNITE HERE Local 26 coordinated with union locals across the country to send simultaneous delegations to the off-campus offices of each of the 13 “fellows” who sit on the board of the Harvard Corporation. This tactic showed the power of a united working-class movement armed with a national network of unions that can carry out simultaneous actions in 13 different locations, spread out across the country.7

Second, students at Harvard College and the various Harvard graduate programs flooded the voicemail inboxes of the fellows with messages expressing our outrage at their mistreatment and exploitation of the HUDS workers. We also sent hundreds of personalized post-cards to the fellows at their home addresses. As long as the administration continued to disrupt the lives of workers—some of whom were facing eviction and overdue medical bills as a result of their lack of income during the strike—we understood that it was our responsibility to disrupt the lives of the fellows. Most of these fellows do not live in Cambridge, which means they can fly to campus periodically, make decisions that hang the workers out to dry, and then fly back to their comfortable lives in cities like San Francisco and New York. Students in West Chester, Pennsylvania, also used this tactic of directly confronting the individuals at the top of the chain of command during a recent faculty strike.8

One of the highlights of the HUDS strike came when workers on the picket line discovered that one of the Fellows would be speaking on campus that afternoon. The workers waited outside of the building for him to finish his talk, and then proceeded to follow him around campus chanting, “Shame, shame, shame on you,” as he tried to escape the crowd.9

Over the past week and a half, workers and students escalated their actions even further. On October 14, nine workers were arrested for blocking traffic in a civil disobedience action. The workers arrested were all mothers, and were specifically protesting the fact that the Harvard administration was trying to force a contract upon them that would cut their healthcare, reducing their ability to take care of their children. Brian Lang of Local 26 and Mike Kramer, the lead negotiator for the union, joined the nine mothers in the action and were also arrested.10

On October 17, hundreds of students from across the Harvard system walked out of class in a show of support for the HUDS workers. Numerous professors also joined in the walkout, and at one point one read a statement of solidarity to the energetic crowd. Just this past Saturday, another joint worker-student rally drew a crowd of over a thousand people, including representatives from many Boston-area unions who expressed their support and donated money to the strike fund. After rallying in the Cambridge Common, the crowd marched to Cambridge City Hall, shutting down Massachusetts Avenue for almost an hour.11

On Monday, October 24, a second student walk-out drew an even larger crowd, which then marched to 124 Mt. Auburn street, where the HUDS workers were locked in a bargaining session with representatives of the Harvard Corporation.12

Lead by the Student Labor Action Movement, students streamed into the building lobby chanting “When Harvard workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” After filling the lobby to capacity, the students launched a spontaneous sit-in, and declared their intention to remain in the building until Harvard’s negotiators accepted the workers’ demands. During the seven-and-a-half-hour sit-in that followed, students kept the energy up by chanting, “We love HUDS!” and singing songs such as “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Overcome.” Due to the layout of the building, the chants echoed all the way to the top floors, and many staffers left their offices to take photos and investigate the source of the disruption.13

By the end of the night, workers had a contract offer from the Harvard Corporation that granted them their core demands and even exceeded them in some areas.14

For student organizers, one of the most important lessons from the HUDS struggle is that the Harvard Corporation did not recognize the strength of the workers until the fellows’ individual lives were disrupted. Publishing statements and op-eds in support of workers is important for raising awareness of their struggle among our classmates, but it is no substitute for direct actions targeting the financial elites that hold the purse-strings. All of the students who sat-in at 124 Mt. Auburn had already signed petitions, marched in rallies, and shared op-eds on social media, but the administration didn’t feel the pressure until we bombarded them with e-mails, phone calls, and letters, and physically occupied their places of work, creating a disruption that they could not ignore. None of this could have occurred without the bravery, commitment, and leadership of the 750 HUDS workers who chose to go on strike.15

The workers, who returned to their jobs this morning, know that this is not the last battle they will have to fight. By going on strike, they were able to build worker power and solidify their ties to other unions, both here in Cambridge as well as across the country. They won this battle because they are more powerful than the clique of elites that tried to bully them into an unfair contract. HUDS workers will emerge from this struggle even stronger than before, with more organizational infrastructure, a sharper understanding of how corporatized universities operate and where the weaknesses are, and more confidence in their ability to seize power and take control of their own working conditions. When we dare to struggle, we dare to win.16

Readers who want to hear more about what life is actually like for the thousands of working-class employees at the country’s wealthiest educational institution should start with the fantastic op-ed written by Rosa Ines Rivera, herself a HUDS employee.

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