UNITE HERE Local 26 Dining Hall workers marched and rallied March 5, eight months into contract negotiations with Tufts University. Tufts has resisted unionization for years, but workers have been building power, and this show of force was about 1,000 strong.
During the organizing drive, 75 percent of the workers signed union cards — the National Labor Relations Board requires at least 30 percent for a union representation election — and 127 out of 146 workers voted to join Local 26 in April 2018. Contract negotiations began last August; with community support, workers are fighting back against the anti-union university. A strike vote is scheduled for March 14, and most workers have indicated that they would vote to authorize a strike.
While picketing and drumming all over campus, demonstrators left hundreds of signs planted in the snow in front of the president’s office during a cold two-hour demonstration that drew enormous student turnout as well as other area union members. Local 26 members, who have had their own struggles against Harvard and Northeastern universities as well as Marriott International, all came out to show support.
Boston’s hotel workers, who weathered a 46-day strike last fall, were an especially strong contingent on the picket line. One Harvard union member, a veteran of the 22-day Harvard strike in 2016, came out to support her mom who is also a dining hall worker and a union activist at Tufts.
Local 26 has led the way in bringing the strike weapon back to the Boston area, and the 2016 Harvard strike has been an inspiration to workers far and wide. The Harvard strike showed the importance of organizing within a union — developing strong leaders, not just growing the union to as many members as possible. Without this effort, unions cannot fight effectively against management’s cuts or contemplate a strike when necessary. So the Harvard strike empowered hotel workers to fight back and win.
The Northeastern campaign and one-day strike followed Harvard in 2017 and reinforced the importance of student solidarity through groups like Harvard Student Labor Action Movement, Huskies Organizing With Labor at Northeastern and now Tufts Dining Action Coalition. The Tufts Coalition has mobilized students and secured statements of support and acts of solidarity from Robin DiAngelo, author of the recent book “White Fragility” who visited the university; the mayors of Medford and Somerville, municipalities that include Tufts’ campus; and even fraternities such as Theta Chi that hoisted a banner reading “Frats for Dining Worker Power.”
Student solidarity has added pressure on the university to do the right thing. Just as it has been a major advantage for all unionized education workers, especially teachers who have repeatedly struck, even in “right-to-work” states.
However, the triumph of UNITE HERE hotel workers, who simultaneously struck in 10 locals across the country, shows that strong organization can win, even without the student solidarity that education workers have. While employers have become greedier, unions prepared to strike can still push back. Workers who fight to form a union or make their union better have an impact on the whole working class — by raising wages and winning the respect all workers deserve.