Harvard reaches tentative deal with striking dining workers

BOSTON – Harvard University has reached a tentative labour agreement with 700 of its cafeteria workers who have been on strike for almost three weeks.

The school announced Tuesday that it agreed in principle to a five-year contract with Unite Here Local 26, the labour union representing Harvard’s dining workers. The union went on strike Oct. 5 after months of negotiations failed to result in a new contract, forcing Harvard to scale back its dining operations.

Both sides declined to provide details of the agreement, which faces a union vote Wednesday. But union President Brian Lang said it “addresses all of the concerns” of the strikers.

At the heart of the dispute is a conflict over wages and benefits. The union asked Harvard to increase salaries to a minimum of $35,000 a year, and it opposed the university’s plan to raise health care costs. Harvard officials said its dining workers already have better pay and benefits than others in the region.

The tentative deal could bring an end to a strike that some billed as a David and Goliath clash. Union members and their supporters highlighted that Harvard’s $35 billion endowment is the largest in the nation, while many of its dining workers are paid $30,000 a year. Critics said Harvard studies poverty while its workers live it.

Daily picket lines outside Harvard drew celebrity supporters including Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law professor, and actor Ben Stiller, who was in town filming a movie. The city council in Cambridge, where Harvard is located, unanimously voted to support the dining workers. Students staged campus protests backing the union.

Harvard officials previously said they had proposed a fair contract, with a 10 per cent increase in hourly wages over five years, and more paid days off than many in the dining industry. The school noted that much of the money in its endowment is restricted, meaning donors dictate how it should be used.

The university’s executive vice-president said in a statement Tuesday that the negotiation process had been challenging and contentious for many on campus.

“I would like to convey our gratitude, on behalf of the university, to all those who showed patience at a time of disruption and inconvenience,” Katie Lapp said in her statement. “The university has been unequivocal in its belief that dining services workers are valued employees and vital members of the Harvard community.”

Although labour disputes occasionally arise on colleges campuses, they’re rare at Harvard. This was the school’s first strike since 1983, when dining workers went on strike for a single day. It also flared at a time when wealthy schools have been under scrutiny for amassing large endowments as student costs increase.

During the strike, Harvard has closed some dining halls, reduced its offerings and recruited temporary workers to feed students. Lapp said she looks forward to welcoming the dining workers back as soon as possible.

Lang, the union president, said the strike will continue until dining workers ratify a new contract.