CLASS struggle has erupted on the campus of one of the top universities in the United States of America, Harvard.
Four hundred US students gathered in the main square last Friday October 14, cheering in support of the university’s catering staff who have been on indefinite strike for the last four weeks. They are referred to as HUDS workers.
Police rushed in and arrested eleven protesting dining hall workers and union officials for allegedly blocking traffic. Seven hundred and fifty members of the Unite Here Local 26 union began their strike on October 5 to demand a living wage.
Their demands are simple: a minimum annual salary of $35,000, and ‘leave our healthcare plan alone.’ There is no free national health service in the US. Workers have to pay large sums out of their wages towards their health insurance cover plan. It is these contributions that the university is trying to drive up.
Food delivery worker Any Montoya was one of the eleven protesters arrested. She said she is fighting for ‘the healthcare. It will affect me on everything.’ Kecia Pugh, a general service worker who has spent 14 years at Harvard and suffers from chronic diabetes, said: ‘We’re fighting for our healthcare to be left alone.’
Instead of clocking in for their shifts, workers are picketing at dozens of locations across Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate campuses. Students have been working to supply striking workers 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.
The workers insist that the strike will continue until a fair agreement is reached.
By Monday, students had organised a mass walk-out of their class in support of the strike.
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. Students marched single-file to the Yard, shouting slogans. After chants of ‘No justice, no peace!’
subsided, Kennedy School lecturer Timothy McCarthy ascended the steps of University Hall to address the crowd. McCarthy announced to cheers that he had ‘cut short’ his lecture in Culture and Belief 49: ‘American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac’ to walk out with his students.
More than 3,300 students – around half of the undergraduate student body have signed the petition in support of striking employees. He then read aloud the text of the petition. ‘Harvard refuses to do the right thing,’ he said.
‘This is unacceptable to us. As faculty members we recognise that HUDS workers not only serve food but also create a sense of community in ways that are invaluable to Harvard.’ Striking workers and students shouted: ‘Hey, Harvard, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.’
Harvard could easily afford to pay their workers a decent wage. Through extortionate student fees, private sponsors and alumni contributions, Harvard receives a whopping $35 billion, making it by far the world’s richest university. Ironically Harvard had just received a $10 million grant to study poverty in the Boston area.
However its food service staff are on poverty wages and are demanding a ‘living wage’. More than a thousand alumni have signed a pledge that ‘until workers settle a fair contract, we withhold all gifts to Harvard University and affiliates.’
Anwar Omeish, a Harvard second year involved with the strike, ‘We’ve been seeing a lot of student support because undergraduates have these personal connections to dining hall workers. ‘Especially for students who are low income, or students of colour, workers really play a big role in college life. The strike has been a really dramatic change.’
Most of the striking employees work eight months of the year because of student holidays. The union says workers are paid closer to $20 per hour, and that employees who work all year should receive $35,000. Most dining hall workers aren’t paid during school breaks and over summer holidays; Harvard claims they make an average of $34,000, though the union says it is closer to $31,000.
Angel Hernandez, a striking catering worker said of the student-led protests: ‘That’s awesome that they’re out here supporting us. ‘That made me feel so good, sentimental, respected from the community, the students. I love them.’
Divinity School students, with yellow flowers adorning their hair and buttonholes, walked to the Science Centre Plaza while singing ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘We Shall Overcome.’
Striking worker Aaron Duckett also spoke at the rally. He criticised Harvard for what he said was its stingy treatment of employees. He received loud applause from the crowd. Duckett said: ‘We used to get a turkey on Thanksgiving from Harvard but over the years that turkey got smaller and smaller and smaller until now we get no turkey.
‘This is representative of Harvard’s attitude towards us, but now, instead of taking a turkey away from us, they want to take away our health care. We don’t want to give up that turkey, we don’t want to give up that health care,’ he added.
John S. Martin, a HUDS worker in Annenberg dining hall known affectionately by many Harvard students, also spoke at the rally. Martin said he is striking for his wife and two children. ‘My son is diagnosed with autism, and with Harvard’s health care I won’t be able to afford it,’ he said. ‘I’m fighting for my son, I’m fighting for myself, I’m fighting for my co-workers.’