Cafeteria workers strike at Harvard

HUDS see crimson. For the first time ever during an academic year, Harvard University Dining Service (HUDS) workers are on strike. And they have been—more than 700 in number—for over two weeks, reports the Harvard Crimson. On Wednesday, workers moved the fight to Boston, to attend a City Council meeting where City Council President Michelle Wu was expected to offer a resolution in support of their efforts.

Harvard ended fiscal year 2015 with an operating surplus of $62 million.

After months of difficult negotiations, workers walked off the job on October 5, citing rising healthcare costs and below-average wages as reasons for the strike. But fueling the fury is, according to Boston’s Local 26, which represents Massachusetts hospitality workers, outrage over a familiar election 2016 theme: income inequality. The union cites a study conducted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which showed that nearly half of Boston’s residents make less than $35,000 a year. “Half of Harvard’s dining services workers, even though they work for the richest university in the world, earn less than $35,000 a year. We expect Harvard to be doing better than the average,” said UNITE HERE President Brian Lang in a statement on the union’s website. “Harvard can’t hide behind hourly wages when workers’ annual income puts them at the bottom end of earnings.”

Harvard ended fiscal year 2015 with an operating surplus of $62 million, compared to $22 million in fiscal year 2014, and its operating revenue sat at $4.5 billion as of June 2015–numbers the university attributes to an increase in giving and positive returns on its infamous annual endowment (see The Atlantic’s “Is Harvard So Rich That It Should Literally Be Illegal?” for more on that bad boy).

While Harvard is, indeed, ballin’ (there’s just no other way to say it), here’s what’s also worth knowing: As Luke O’Neil reported in Slate on Tuesday, HUDS workers make around $21 an hour, or just under $34,000 a year. Yeah, not tenure-track bucks, but above the state’s minimum wage of $10 an hour. As for the rise in healthcare costs, the Slate piece said a group of Harvard medical students had analyzed the university’s plan and noted a $100 increase in in-patient visits, which, they said, would leave workers worse off than if they had no insurance at all. Significant, sure, but as the Slate piece also explained, the workers haven’t had a health insurance increase in eight years.

Labor disputes have many threads. In this case, what may be worth unraveling is the deeper issue: perhaps it doesn’t just come down to how little workers make, but how damn much more Harvard has.

Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.