*The author is a member of the group Student Labor Action Movement, or SLAM.
This past fall, Harvard dining hall workers went on strike for 22 days after seven months of failed contract negotiations. Harvard University Dining Services workers wanted to maintain their previous health care plan. Local 26, the union representing HUDS workers, distributed flyers detailing Harvard’s proposed health care plan: emergency room costs would increase by 150 percent and copays by 60 percent. Harvard Medical School students declared this new plan “unaffordable.”
In addition to health care, salary was heavily negotiated. In an email sent to the Harvard community, Harvard’s Vice President for Human Resources revealed that the HUDS hourly wage was $24.08. This figure was $9.04 higher than the City of Cambridge’s living wage, $15.04. Yet Local 26 flyers point out that 70 percent of HUDS workers earned less than $35,000 per year without working overtime. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a single parent must earn approximately $55,900 per year to live in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area. Local 26’s request for $35,000 in annual earnings is less than the living wage estimate by more than $20,000 for single parents. Because HUDS workers cannot work or collect unemployment benefits during school breaks, high hourly wages are turned into low annual earnings.
Despite the importance of this issue, negotiations were hidden behind closed doors, restricted to only a select group of people. In an interview with the HPR, Local 26 Chief Steward Ed Childs described how the union fought Harvard’s administration for weeks to even let workers watch negotiations. Childs also recalled how the administration intended to end negotiations if the Harvard community was allowed in the negotiating room. Thus, while negotiations officially started in February 2016, many undergraduate students were unaware of them until the possibility of a strike was announced seven months later.
Even though negotiations were restricted, the strike felt very public: workers picketed every day in Harvard Yard and Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement held numerous events. SLAM, a student activist group for labor justice that supports various groups of Harvard workers during their contract negotiations was heavily invoked in the strike. The group organized rallies and dominated social media, rallying the Harvard community to support HUDS workers. In this manner, student activist organizations like SLAM can influence Harvard’s administration by helping students to engage with relatively inaccessible administrative affairs.
#HUDSLove: Mobilizing Students
SLAM held many large events throughout the semester for students to come and show their support for the strike. In an interview with the HPR, Eli Langley ‘20 said that he didn’t “know how I personally would have been able to get involved [with the strike] without the hardworking members of SLAM.” Langley attended some of SLAM’s numerous events, including the dine-in on October 6. At the dine-in, approximately 700 undergraduate students brought their dinners to Harvard Yard to hear student and worker speeches, and to see performances by student music groups. Two weeks later, at 2 p.m., 500 students walked out of class and joined a rally that turned into a sit-in in the building where HUDS negotiations were taking place. Union members periodically left the negotiating room to give updates to students, 250 of whom stayed as late as 9 p.m. Live videos from these events were also streamed to Facebook, helping even more students understand the details of the strike. Events like these allowed students to engage with the strike and show their support for HUDS workers, even if they were not directly privy to the contract negotiation details.
And while these large events were heavily publicized, SLAM simultaneously offered opportunities for differing levels of student involvement. Low-commitment forms of activism created a wide base of support by allowing students to become easily involved. Some of these campaigns included the creation of a strike petition, dissemination of “Support the Strike” pins, and appeals to students for photos of unsanitary food provided in dining halls during the strike. These efforts were successful, as evidenced by the more than 2,000 student signatures on the petition. Students who wanted to engage more could call and email Harvard Corporation Fellows, and attend the dine-in and rallies. Additionally, students could participate in walk-outs and sit-ins. The variety of ways to get involved allowed students to engage in the strike more frequently and in different ways.
The multiple levels of commitment also energized students to stay involved by forming a community of strike supporters. This community showed supporters they were not alone and made them feel like they had a stake in the strike. As Langley described, events like the dine-in “[were] one of the things that made [the strike] feel more personal to me.” Thus, these many commitment levels not only attracted a wider base of students, but also encouraged some to donate even more of their time and efforts. For instance, after attending the dine-in and encouraging his friends to join him, Langley attended the walk-out on October 17 and gave a speech at the subsequent rally. Langley’s growing participation over the course of the strike paralleled the student body’s increasing involvement. Three hundred students participated in the first walk-out, while 500 participated in the second.
#OneHarvard: Uniting Communities
To facilitate student engagement with the strike, SLAM united various Harvard communities, such as students and HUDS workers. SLAM events helped students hear workers’ firsthand perspectives and understand why negotiations were failing, which was otherwise impossible due to the restricted nature of the contract negotiations. In an interview with the HPR, SLAM member Anwar Omeish ‘19 described the strong relationship between workers and the student group. Students “had to coordinate very closely with workers … to know what they were asking and what’s going on with contract negotiations.” The workers attended SLAM meetings and suggested actions for the group, like the sit-in. Workers also spoke at SLAM rallies and Harvard house-specific events, emphasizing the importance of affordable health care by sharing personal experiences of dealing with chronic illness or children with illnesses. These speeches were one of the central ways students could hear workers’ experiences directly.
While SLAM primarily connected students and HUDS workers, it also created a link between graduate and undergraduate students. Graduate school students attended SLAM meetings and updated the group on their own actions to support the strike. As a result, SLAM was able to coordinate joint rallies with students at some graduate schools, like the Harvard Divinity School, and promoted events like a Harvard Kennedy School discussion about the strike. SLAM also amplified the work of graduate students. For example, when Harvard Medical School students helped HUDS workers with their report analyzing Harvard’s health care packages, SLAM spread the report’s findings in its own messaging.
In addition to working with graduate students, SLAM connected the community by working with undergraduate student groups. The Phillips Brooks House Association held a barbecue for workers; the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum held a dinner with HUDS; and music groups like Kuumba, the Breakers, and the Veritones performed at the dine-in. All of these groups planned their events with SLAM. Students with diverse interests could further engage with the strike by planning or attending these events. SLAM also helped to support other groups, like the Native Americans at Harvard College. Langley, a member of NAHC, described how SLAM coordinated with Local 26 to halt picketing during Indigenous People’s Day programming and to find a Native American worker to speak at NAHC’s rally. Fostering relationships with other groups and promoting their efforts helped SLAM to further connect students to the strike while supporting fellow activists.
Though SLAM largely helped students engage with the strike, the group’s actions prevented some groups from engaging. Students with eating disorders, for instance, were negatively impacted by the constant discussions of food. SLAM’s advertising and events contributed to this. SLAM started planning a response affirming its support for these students, but the response was never finished. Activist organizations should increase engagement through actions that are as inclusive as possible. SLAM can improve in the future through a renewed emphasis on ensuring that all students can interact with administrative issues.
#SupportTheStrike: Student Power
The negotiations between Harvard and HUDS were largely hidden from the Harvard community, but SLAM changed this. SLAM helped students get involved with the strike by organizing events and creating requests along a sliding scale of commitment. It also united the HUDS, undergraduate student, and graduate student communities to increase participation in strike-related events. This work helped Harvard students influence decisions regarding how members of their community are treated.
Some may argue that students should focus on their classes instead of protesting against their school’s administrative decisions. However, this argument ignores the power students have to create change at their universities. As Omeish explained, undergraduate students “have a lot of influence because we can generate a lot of press coverage, and we can cause a lot of problems for the administration.” When it is time to rally for a cause, “we can leverage that particular personality and that privilege and that media coverage.” Students have a special type of privilege within their institutions. It is their responsibility to use it to ensure that members of their community are respected.
Today’s student activism often focuses on local progress with respect to broader, national campaigns. For example, SLAM focused on affordable healthcare and fair wages on a local level. This relatively small scale is beneficial because it allows students to make local victories happen faster than national ones. The national Fight for 15 movement hopes to establish a national $15 minimum wage. It started with hundreds of New York City workers striking in November 2012, and while the movement has succeeded in increasing minimum wages in a number of states and cities, it must continue fighting for a $15 wage nationally. The HUDS negotiations officially started in February 2016 and were resolved in October 2016. HUDS’ victory happened in eight months, and can bolster support for national movements that, like Fight for 15, can continue for years.
Local change is easier to enact than national change, and students have a unique privilege to advocate for change in their institutions. Students have a moral obligation to ensure that their communities are fair and just by using their privilege to promote change. Whatever causes students champion, their actions will simultaneously improve their communities and contribute to national political movements.
Image Credit: Sebastian Reyes