Between classes at Harvard, the lunch line traces the class line dividing the country’s most elite campus. A dining hall staffer could serve the university president lunch for about 35 years and on the current wage scale, still earn less than his boss’s 2014 annual salary. And while Harvard thinks the demand for a yearly minimum wage of $35,000 is too indulgent, students pay over twice that much to the school to attend classes and live on campus.
So that’s why both workers and students ditched the lunch line for the picket line lasts week in the first Harvard campus strike in over 30 years, transforming the polished Oxonian dining halls into a crucible of intersecting social struggles.
On the first day of the strike, Harvard Yard brimmed with subversive school spirit, chanting about Harvard showing “your greedy side.” Clerical and janitorial workers joined the red-T-shirted strikers on the picket line during off hours in solidarity. Students joined the workers’ marches across campus, alongside local workers from off-campus union workplaces. As undergraduate Wesley Cash told The Harvard Crimson, although he missed seeing friendly staffers during mealtimes, he acknowledged, “They’re not getting paid, they’re not working, they’re not enjoying benefits, and they need to feed their families.”
After the strike launched last Wednesday, a Harvard spokesperson stated the university was “disappointed that they have been more interested in planning a strike than working on a solution that meets the needs of their members and the wider community.” Workers are disappointed that the richest university in the country seems more interested in fattening its $35 billion endowment than sustaining a living wage for its poorest workers.
“They feel that we as Harvard employees should be grateful to have a job…that [the rise in health care costs is] happening to everyone,” says Kecia Pugh, a General Service worker at Annenberg Dining Hall. As a single mother, she says she would pay several thousand more annually under the administration’s proposal. The plan would especially burden part-time coworkers who only work seven months out of the academic year. “And what they’re saying is that this is the best they can do?…Working at the wealthiest university in the world, with a $35 billion endowment they got,” she says, for the workers, “they want to nickel and dime our health care.”
According to an analysis by Harvard Medical students, under the administration’s proposal premiums could reach roughly $233 per month, compared to a zero premium under the Affordable Care Act in Massachusetts—a costlier plan than what many uninsured, non-union workers in the state enjoy.