Lessons of the victorious Harvard dining hall strike, Part Three: Class-struggle unionism in action

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 workers and oppressed in the age of global capitalism — particularly 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 third in a series of articles based on the interviews where Childs explains how the workers won.

We had no illusions that we could beat this country’s oldest corporation — Harvard Corporation, which follows the dictates of Wall Street — by just going through the motions of picketing each worksite. Our tactics were all militant, class-struggle tactics: constant pickets, marches and rallies with raucous chanting and constant drumming on plastic buckets. You could hear us all over campus and in classrooms.

Picketing lasted from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the dining halls, with marches to the law school, the business school, etc., every afternoon. We marched to football games and Alumni Week events. We had the support of athletic teams, including the football team. Over 400 workers marched through Harvard Yard and Harvard Square, where there were lots of people and traffic. Greater Boston labor came out in strength for mass protests that drew more than 1,000 people.

Over 100 workers went by bus from the main campus in Cambridge to Harvard Medical School in Boston. Workers greeted the medical students as they walked out of class. Together, they held a loud, two-hour rally. We targeted Harvard Corporation members’ homes and businesses. Supporters in other parts of the country picketed board members in their area.  On Oct. 14, the president of UNITE HERE Local 26 and a group of women in the local’s leadership sat down in the middle of the street and were arrested.

‘Support from all over the world’

We were getting support from all over the world because we took on Harvard — Wall Street in the world’s eyes — and because health care is a universally recognized human right. At first, workers felt they were just fighting for themselves. By the end of the first week, we felt we were fighting for the whole country, and by the second week’s end we knew we were fighting for health care worldwide.

Even before the strike, our first international support came from a labor federation in occupied Palestine. When the strike happened, letters and articles of support poured in from students, workers and faculty in South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, Russia and other European countries, as well as all over the U.S. The World Federation of Trade Unions supported us, and while they were meeting in South Africa, we composed a message to the Congress of South African Trade Unions supporting their general strike.

The moneyed elite was getting worried about our escalation plans and the expansion of our unity. We had met with local Black Lives Matter activists and BLM organizers who had led high school walkouts. They came to our pickets, where they proposed, as a possibility, that high school students would walk out in solidarity with us. It was good for us that these other struggles and ours were happening simultaneously.

Harvard management started to break down by the third week. Students bombarded them with complaints about closed dining halls. Morale on campus was low; the only high morale was in support of us. Events were falling apart without food service. At the Kennedy School, where the world bourgeoisie meet all the time, and at the School of Business, meetings were collapsing.

Out of 750 members, only 24 crossed the picket line and four of those came back out. But we had to take into account the time element. HUDS workers had just come off a 2-3 month layoff with no unemployment compensation — thanks to a Reagan-era federal law that denies benefits to food service workers and custodians during “seasonal layoffs.” We would have had difficulty sustaining a protracted strike.

‘Racheting up our tactics’

Both sides were cracking. It was the last gasp for them and for us, so we knew we had to employ drastic actions. By the third week, our conversations were all about ratcheting up our tactics.

The culmination of three weeks of class struggle came on the evening of Oct. 24. After a student walkout from a class where former Harvard President Larry Summers was the guest lecturer, the students joined the strikers who were rallying in the Yard. They marched over to the building where negotiations were taking place. Then 500 students marched into the building, chanting, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” and took over the lobby while 300 workers kept up a noisy line outside. The students stayed late into the night, chanting and drumming. Negotiations went on, and at 1:30 a.m. the next day, Harvard caved in.

We got a total victory, everything we demanded and more. We won wage increases amounting to $3 an hour over the five-year contract (retroactive to the June 20 contract expiration date); a substantial, first-time-ever stipend during summer layoffs; better, less expensive health insurance, including for retirees; increased uniform and shoe allowances; and strengthened gender identity nondiscrimination terms. The new contract established a task force through which union members have the power to stop discrimination and promote diversity in the workplace — a demand the corporation insisted it would never accept. The university’s recognition of “Columbus Day” was replaced by Indigenous Peoples Day.

Most importantly, all the health care takeaways that Harvard Corporation was demanding were off the table.

The bosses had been testing the ground to see how they could destroy us. In the middle of negotiations, they fired their lead negotiator, Harvard’s general counsel, and hired Paul Curran, well-known in Boston as a professional union buster. He tried to bust city unions, including the school bus drivers’ union.

Then they fired their press secretary and hired a reporter recently fired by the Miami Herald. She lost her job there for deliberately lying, fabricating racist stories against Black residents and covering up a racist charter school movement; she was a personal friend of a pro-charter school committeeperson. The Black community had picketed the Miami Herald to protest her racist lies. Harvard immediately hired her, and she set up a media campaign attacking us, putting lie after lie in local and campus press.

The press, which wouldn’t talk to us, tried to turn students against us by saying more money for workers would mean less for scholarships. Harvard tried to break our coalition by getting professors and deans on their side, but none of the deans and only one or two right-wing professors meekly opposed us. In fact, everyone below the president of the university supported us. There was mass student support at every one of the 20 schools; even the Republican Party’s student group endorsed us.

Students were planning to seize another building and get arrested. We planned for student and worker hunger strikes. With the escalation of class-struggle tactics, and publicized plans to take the struggle even further, Harvard caved. The takeover was the powerful move that broke the Corporation’s back. We were under a huge amount of pressure, but when the occupation happened, it was like two armies fighting, both exhausted, but then one gets fresh troops and just crushes the other side.

The political position of Wall Street was to defeat us. Now, we have been praised all over the world for protecting health care against the bourgeoisie who were trying to beat us down.

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

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