Harvard dining hall workers have entered the third week of their historic strike and on Wednesday won the unanimous support of the Boston City Council.
Council President Michelle Wu introduced a resolution to support the 750 dining hall workers who have been striking for better conditions. Members of UNITE HERE Local 26 applauded and cheered in the city council chambers as council members stood up to voice their support.
“Shame on you, Harvard,” City Councilor Tito Jackson said, “for raising $7 billion on your endowment, of $37.6 billion—10 times the budget of our city council—but you can’t take care of your workers.”
Dining service workers have been on strike since Oct. 5 and seek better pay to cover their unemployed summer months. They also are calling for a reassessment of their health care coverage so that costs are not shifted onto the employees.
Council members said they intend to join the dining workers’ picket lines on campus and forward a copy of the resolution to Harvard University’s management.
“This is an issue that is very personal for me,” Wu said. “When I arrived at Harvard as a college freshman—the first time I was away from my family for any extended period of time—the dining hall workers truly became my family away from home. They’re the faces you see every day, checking in on you to make sure you’re eating well and getting enough sleep. They really become like your moms and dads.”
Local 26 President Brian Lang said after the meeting that the dining hall workers appreciated hearing that personal acknowledgment from Wu.
“The workers really care about the students and I’ve heard them voice daily, ‘We want to get back to taking care of our students,” he said.
Many of the council members brought up the disparity between these dining hall employees asking for a $35,000 salary and the current expansive Harvard University endowment. City Councilor Josh Zakim said that he was particularly struck by the number dining workers are asking for during Wu’s initial comments.
“That’s one-one millionth of Harvard’s endowment. We’re talking about the richest institution,” he said. “They do a lot of good, but they’re not doing good today. They’re not treating their workers right.”
While the endowment is large, Harvard officials say that those funds are largely restricted for “specific academic purposes.”
“These funds are also only one part of Harvard’s financial picture,” Tania deLuzuriaga, a spokesperson for the university, said in an email. “At a time when institutions across higher education are anticipating challenging endowment returns, continuing pressure on tuition revenue and federal research support, Harvard is sensitive to increasing costs.”
Harvard says that their dining hall employees currently earn an average of $21.89 per hour—a nationally competitive compensation—along with top market benefits like pensions and health insurance. Dining hall workers counter that because they aren’t given year-round work and often can’t find employment for only the summer months, their income is actually equal year-long workers who are paid $15.96 an hour.
Councilors also brought up the fact that Harvard recently received a $10 million grant to study the “inequality experienced by African and African American residents in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods,” according to the Harvard Crimson.
“We implore you, Harvard, to please stop studying poverty and to take your rightful leadership place and do something to prevent it,” City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said.
Lang said that Harvard is “inching closer” to their terms and deLuzuriaga noted that "The university stands ready to continue to work with Local 26 and mediators to try to find a fair and reasonable resolution."
“It’s not moving as quickly as it should, but is moving, and so were going to continue the course that we’ve been on,” Lang said. “[The city council support] gives our members strength to continue on because they know what they’re standing up for is right, and it takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up to an institution like the Harvard administration.”