Harvard strike reminds us to champion low-income worker rights

For the past two weeks, Harvard University has made headlines because of its first strike since 1983—and it does not look like it will end any time soon. The 750 food service workers, who are part of the UNITE HERE’s Local 26, a Boston-based labor union, walked out on Oct. 5 after five months of negotiating for better wages and against price hikes in health insurance. Our neighbors from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine have rallied behind their workers, while the university has not budged much in negotiation. Although this is not a favorable predicament for the Harvard workers, their actions carry with it the Harvard name, whose stardom as an Ivy League could spark real change in the food service industry for low-income workers.

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Students support the Harvard strike at a protest. Source: Luke O’Neil, Slate

Whenever there is any sort of cause deemed universal enough that everyone could get behind it, public figures, like actors, and musicians use their fame to shine light on the issue, such as registering to vote in the upcoming 2016 presidential election. When people see these recognizable faces on their social media feed telling them to vote, they often feel obligated to do so because they do not want to let their favorite celebrities down.

In much the same way, public figures are utilizing their fame to help the Harvard strike. Among these figures are Senator Elizabeth Warren, who previously worked at Harvard Law School, and Ben Stiller, who took a break from filming a movie in Cambridge to join the picket line. Their presence and participation has gained the strike more visibility, but it is short-lived unless more people start speaking up for low-income workers.

Support began with students. Students from Harvard’s schools generated a petition with 2,500 signatures to rally behind food service workers. They are walking out of classes to picket alongside workers, and a handful of medical students even developed an analysis of why Harvard’s proposal is not financially feasible for the average Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) worker, who makes roughly $31,193, according to Harvard’s Information for Employees on its website.

It is time that students from surrounding colleges and universities band together to champion the rights of low-income workers, who continue to fight for livable wages and health care coverage. Here at Simmons, our food service employees treat us like family. They listen to our daily struggles and give us the extra boost we need to push through the semester. It is time that we listen not only to our own workers, but our neighbors at Harvard who should not have to choose between putting dinner on the table and visiting the doctor.

We should take time out of our busy schedules to stand behind these workers because just as we are investing in our own education to pursue desirable careers, they too want better working conditions. Harvard has a $37.6 billion endowment and is in the business of building future leaders, but is ironically not effectively working with strikers to help resolve this conflict. This is one of the few more accessible historical movements that we could join to really make an impact. What side of the picket line will you be on?

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