Lessons of the Harvard dining hall strike victory

Part 1: Advance preparation

The 750 striking Harvard University Dining Service workers — cooks, dishwashers, servers and cashiers — brought multibillion-dollar Harvard University to its knees on Oct. 25, 2016. After a three-week strike, the university bosses caved, giving the members of UNITE HERE Local 26 even more than they had initially demanded. Most importantly, all the health care takeaways the Harvard Corporation had demanded were off the table. The strike victory holds valuable lessons for the workers and oppressed in the age of global capitalism — particularly now, under the Trump administration and the rise of fascist, racist elements. Workers World’s Martha Grevatt interviewed Chief Steward Ed Childs, a cook and leader in Local 26 for more than 40 years. This is the first in a series of articles based on the interviews where Childs explains how the workers won.

The Harvard University Dining Service workers are a majority women, a majority immigrant and half workers of color. Our members are from all over the world — Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. We have long-term veteran workers and young workers. How did this diverse workforce — who said to the world that “Health Care Is a Human Right!” — come together and defeat the Harvard Corporation, run by the likes of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs?

We had a militant rank-and-file committee, but most were new to organizing a fightback. Our strike was spread out over 20 different locations in eight schools in two different cities. How did we overcome these challenges?

We began preparing for a possible strike well in advance, holding numerous meetings in every dining hall, on every shift, as well as constituency meetings. These included constituencies within the union — cooks, dishwashers, servers and cashiers — but also constituencies on campus: law students and medical students; Black, Muslim, LGBTQ and women’s organizations; and other campus unions. At every meeting we went over Harvard’s takeaway demands point by point.

The need for affordable, quality and preventive health care is universally understood. Our rank and file was part of that experience. They recognized later why all these seemingly endless meetings were necessary.

Building union structure

Through the decades we have built a classic structure for union organizing and developed leadership in the rank and file. We did this through classes — for shop stewards, organizing and leadership — and by meeting with workers one-on-one. We brought leaders up from the bottom.

I teach a course on organizing. You need a structure. At each worksite there are one or two stewards and secondary leaders. We have regular steward and leadership meetings. The structure builds the ranks, gives you more options about how to organize and takes care of a high turnover of workers by not relying on just one leader. This means you can survive — it’s more work, but you get more satisfaction and results. In the General Motors sit-downs in the 1930s, the United Auto Workers had a structure that engaged the rank and file. It could not have succeeded with a top-down, business unionism model.

In the past there had been a large turnover of top leaders, so we focused on building leaders in the dining halls again. No hall went through the past year without a major meeting every couple of months.

Another purpose of these meetings was to politicize the issue of health care. As far as the bourgeoisie were concerned, the money that goes toward health care was forced upon them by past struggles, and now they were going to take it back and keep the money themselves. The capitalists let loose on us over health care.

There had been a successful campaign to get rid of the previous Harvard president, Larry Summers. The CEO of Goldman Sachs then took over the reins as interim president. That’s when Harvard Corporation took direct control. The president had an open house, invited union people and spelled out that the corporation intended to take a lot away and the main thing was health care. Throughout the entire economy, the bosses are doing it, so Goldman Sachs figures, why not at Harvard?

Goldman, Bank of America, Citibank and their ilk all have had campaigns to undo health care. They actually told us years before that they would target us. It was a political campaign to undercut pensions, to keep layoffs with no compensation, but particularly to cut our health care. They never said they couldn’t afford it. They said, “This is the industry out there.” To settle our health care demand would have cost them less than half a million dollars. But they offered $1 million to $1.5 million worth of stuff we weren’t even asking for if we would just drop our demand to hold the line on health care. Our ranks knew that.

On June 20 our contract expired. The usual summer layoffs took out all but 200 of our members. In September everyone came back ready to fight. There was a near-consensus on campus to support us if we struck for health care. We gave the bosses an ultimatum: If you don’t give in, we are going out.

Building coalition around health care benefits

Coalition building was paramount. Spending over 40 years in the leadership of Workers World Party has taught me that. We reached out to all groups that had an interest in joining us in the struggle to maintain health care benefits.

Everyone in the university community is in some way affected by the lack of adequate or affordable medical care or discrimination in health care. Professors and graduate student workers — who at Harvard are not unionized — are threatened by increased payments for health care. There are students who have no health insurance.

Women, Muslims, people of color and LGBTQ people are all discriminated against by the health care industry under capitalism. They had a stake in the coalition, which was built up slowly and with patience over time. It included groups like the Black Student Association, Harvard Islamic Society, Muslim Student Society, Harvard Law Students, Black Law Students, Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), campus LGBTQ groups and women’s groups, and the Jewish student group Hillel.

Well before the strike began, the union embraced all these constituencies with a stake in the demand for affordable, quality, preventive health care for all. We met at a dormitory called Adams House in April, and this cemented the coalition among our members, students, faculty and other campus unions. A lot of radical students, including those in SLAM, live at Adams. Two progressive professors hosted the meeting. The union officialdom of UNITE HERE Local 26, who came at our invitation, tried to change the coalition-building character of the meeting and run it like a regular membership meeting, but we wouldn’t let that happen.

A lot of student and campus union allies spoke. Our rank-and-file leaders spoke. The Black law students had just had an occupation over racism, and no one had supported them until our union got behind them. They were fantastic when they spoke. That meeting was where we first met the medical students. The room sat 100, and it was not only packed but overflowed into the street. The meeting made an impression on the union leadership.

We also brought our coalition partners into our dining hall meetings so they would bond with the workers and the workers could see the living coalition. By the time the strike began in October, we had our fighting infrastructure well-established.

Phebe Eckfeldt, Steve Gillis, Steve Kirschbaum, Milt Neidenberg and Minnie Bruce Pratt contributed to this series of articles.

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