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“I love HUDS workers, but I don’t think I have enough information to take a side.”

“I wish I knew more about Harvard’s perspective.”

“I don’t feel comfortable speaking out; no one seems to be asking the right questions.”

I support the strike. I find many of the workers’ demands to be reasonable. I’ve talked to plenty of students who do not, and they have valid concerns. Here is my case for how supporters of the strike can make our case more compelling, and how student activism can be more effective.

As the Local 26 strike looks to continue indefinitely, it is time to reflect critically on what students can be doing to support HUDS workers. Thusfar, many students have expressed their support for HUDS workers as they fight to secure health care benefits and wage increases. The Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) has spearheaded a campaign defending HUDS workers, and its petition has allegedly acquired thousands of signatures. I have immense levels of respect for students who have participated in the pro-strike activism thusfar, and I think they have successfully rallied many to support the strike. However, I believe that the number of students supporting the strike would be far higher if student activists engaged more deeply with the intellectual arguments opposing the strike.

SLAMming Harvard

From what I have observed, a lot of student activists are portraying the strike as a very black-or-white issue. Harvard, the wealthy and greedy institution, has no justification for denying rights to its workers. In fact, as the fact sheets covering campus indicate, Harvard recently raised seven billion dollars! To top it all off, HUDS workers are laid off during breaks. If you think HUDS workers are a valuable part of our community, and you think that workers deserve rights, then surely you support the strike. Right?

It is this tone of moral and emotional vigor that stifles intellectual and economic discussion. Of course, it would be absurd to say that emotions and ethics have no place in the conversation. To SLAM’s credit, the appeals to justice and morality have motivated many students to show their support for the strike. Furthermore, it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about the negotiation without considering the plight of workers. However, it is also impossible to do so without exploring Harvard’s side of the argument.

At a place like Harvard, there are a great number of students who are persuaded by logical arguments. Yes, Harvard has raised $7 billion. This does not mean that Drew Faust has a closet full of $7 billion that she is nefariously hiding from HUDS workers. Harvard, like all businesses, faces trade-offs. If expenses increase in one area, what will they decrease in? Will increased costs for workers lead to less money for financial aid? Fewer research facilities? There are certainly arguments to be made that improving the quality of life of HUDS workers outweighs the potential benefits of additional research (or whatever Harvard would be unable to spend money on). However, when these trade-offs are not discussed, students feel unequipped to make an informed decision on the strike.

Questions for Student Activists

I think that student activists can make their case more compelling if they answer the following questions:

1) What are the likely trade-offs that Harvard will face if it increases costs, and why are these costs outweighed by the benefits to workers?
2) Would increasing costs incentivize Harvard to lay off workers (as argued by Professor Mankiw)?
3) What is a “fair” wage or a “fair” health care package?
4) Why should fairness be prioritized over economic utility?
5) How can the university’s proposal be “unfair” when dining services employees make more in 38 weeks than people working year-round on Cambridge’s living wage?
6) Why should Harvard go against the wages set by the free market?
7) Is it possible to be a caring and empathic person who supports the plight of HUDS workers but opposes the strike for complicated economic reasons? (Hint: This one has a clearer answer than the others)

Students should certainly research these questions on their own, and I do not think it is fair to expect student activists to have nuanced answers to all potential counterarguments. However, the more questions that student activists are able to address, and the better they are able to publicize these answers, the more students will support the strike.

Beyond HUDS

The activism surrounding the HUDS strike provides an excellent case study for future activism. Efforts in favor of the strike have undoubtedly energized the campus and raised awareness about the importance of the strike. Through posters, fact sheets, social media posts, and dine-ins, SLAM has been particularly effective at mobilizing students who support the strike. Future activist efforts may wish to emulate these tactics as one form of outreach.

While mobilizing supporters is a crucial part of activism, so too is persuading new supporters. On this front, I think future activists can critically evaluate activists. To SLAM’s credit, it did organize various Q&A sessions in dining halls. It even issued a response email addressing some arguments set forth by the university. Yet even this response failed to address some of the most common anti-strike arguments. As a fellow HPR writer notes, the discourse surrounding the HUDS strike has had a tendency to be anti-intellectual.

In order to be more persuasive, students could proactively seek out disagreements. Activists could host debates, post fact sheets that address common counterarguments, and reach out to those who disagree with their cause. When doing so, activists should make sure they accurately and respectfully characterize the other side’s views. This process would not only draw in more supporters—it would also allow activists to identify and challenge some of their premises and intuitions.

Most importantly, activists should avoid creating a culture that makes people unlikely to speak out. While phrases like #HUDSLove and “Let’s Get the Facts Straight” are catchy, they send a counterproductive message to those who have valid questions about the strike. Do activists believe strike critics do not love HUDS? Do they believe that it is impossible to understand the facts yet draw a different conclusion? Activists should be conscious that their statements have the potential to alienate or invalidate students who hold different political or economic viewpoints. If opponents of movements feel like they are going to be shamed or bullied when they voice controversial opinions, both sides lose the opportunity to change their views through thoughtful discussion.

Image Credit: Akash Wasil

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