“People heard the administration’s arguments about our benefits and thought, oh, they have it so good and they’re being greedy. But they didn’t know the whole truth.” said Laquiesha Rainey, a cook in Winthrop House dining hall at Harvard University. “We realized we had to tell the truth about what it’s really like to work here.”
Universities are a microcosm of the increasing inequality we see across society. Every year, adjunct faculty, post-doctoral researchers, student workers, clerical and technical staff, dining service employees, security workers, and janitorial staff are bearing the burden of jobs that impose more work and provide less security. In response to the casualization of university labor, unions that have been on campus for decades are ramping up organizing efforts, and thousands of workers are building new unions.
At Harvard University, two precedent-setting labor actions occurred almost simultaneously in the fall of 2016: the first strike of dining hall workers during the academic year in Harvard’s history, and the first election for a graduate student employee union since the Columbia National Labor Relations Board decision on August 23, 2016 restored the right of private university student workers to bargain collectively. The Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) strike won a resounding victory on October 26th. The Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) faced an extremely close election on November 16th and 17th that is still being resolved. Both of these actions highlight an essential feature of union movements that we might learn from, as we inhabit Trump’s America: how to transform a community into the basis of collective power.
The HUDS strike was the culmination of a protracted struggle against threatened cuts to health care coverage, reductions in term-time employment, and a litany of discrimination and harassment grievances. For five months, HUDS workers’ local union, UNITE HERE Local 26, had been in fruitless contract negotiations. To outsiders, the Harvard administration presented themselves as a generous employer, offering HUDS employees $21.89 per hour in an area where $15.04 for a 12-month employment plan is a living wage. In reality, workers were paid far less. Harvard did not employ workers all year round, leaving workers without employment over summers and holiday breaks. Many HUDS workers were infuriated that Harvard would twist these facts to portray dining hall workers as spoiled employees making unreasonable demands.
Charges of discrimination and harassment by supervisors were also at the forefront of the fight for a contract. Sixty percent of HUDS workers are immigrants, the majority of them women of color. Discrimination against Muslim workers was what initially provoked Ahmed (name changed to protect anonymity) a HUDS employee who began as a dishwasher fifteen years ago, to get involved in union organizing. “I never imagined I would have to deal with [this disrespect] at Harvard,” said Ahmed. He rattled off many instances of manager harassment he’d experienced first or secondhand in the last few years: Muslim employees not allowed to take breaks for prayer, discouraged from having beards, asked to fill out unauthorized questionnaires about their religion, or even asked to cut corners by serving non-halal beef during Halal Night (which, he added, workers refused to do).
“When it comes to disrespect of beliefs I don’t tolerate that. As a Muslim, that is one thing I stand for,” said Ahmed.
Laquiesha Rainey, who has worked at Harvard for three years and has a two-year-old daughter Madison, also recounts a similar story of how she became a leader of the union in her dining hall. “I was not looking to becoming involved in the union until I started noticing little things going on,” she said. She felt that if no one else was going to stand up, she had to. “That’s when I decided to take a leadership role and show some of the people here that ‘its ok.’ You have a voice, an opinion, you don’t have to be afraid,” said Rainey.
Ed Childs, a HUDS employee for forty years and a union organizer since his early twenties, agreed that management was often its own worst enemy. He said that the Harvard administration “helped us by creating issues and bringing people together.” The moment the administration moved to cut health care benefits, according to Rainey, was “the nail in the coffin.” When the strike authorization vote was held on September 16th, employees voted 591-18, or 97%, in favor of a strike.
On October 5th, all dining service workers walked out.
No one knew when the strike began how long it would last; most thought they might be out one or two days. The length of the strike — ultimately 22 days — meant that the work of organizing escalated as Harvard tried to break worker solidarity. Childs recalled one leader in Dunster House dining hall saying “my daily routine was making sure they stayed on the picket line the next day.” Workers received a small strike wage of $40 per day if they walked the picket line, but as the strike extended past two weeks with no end in sight, some workers grew anxious. In her hall, Rainey felt that the momentum from the start of the strike made the first few weeks easy, but by the last week “people were starting to feel like, ok, I need a paycheck, I got bills.”
Her strategy was to remind people of what they were fighting for. “I would remind people that, yeah I know you need the money now, but it’s a five year contract,” Rainey said. “Over the five years, how much are you going to spend on health insurance? Is that worth you going back now?”
Ahmed would also remind workers of what they had to put up with prior to striking. “I used to say: do you want to go back to work and be disrespected? If we don’t get what we’re asking for, you’ll be more disrespected,” he said. According to Childs, some of the people who initially voted against the strike ended up being the strongest leaders during strike.
“They voted no because they didn’t think we could win,” Childs said. “But once we went out, they knew we had to win. They knew it was not going to be easy. And they fought hard.”
For many non-HUDS workers in the Harvard community, the strike exposed the ruthlessness of the corporate university. Despite the administration’s attempts to paint HUDS employees as “privileged” to be working for such a prestigious institution, the contrast between Harvard’s claims and worker experiences fueled broad solidarity across campus. It was this disparity that Christine Mitchell, a graduate student employee at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health, first noticed, and it led to her involvement in labor organizing in the spring of 2016. At this time, the dining service workers of the Harvard Club of Boston (also part of Local 26) were negotiating their own contract.
“What management was saying was such a mismatch from what I was hearing from actual workers. It’s like they were living a different truth, a different reality,” Mitchell said. “That helped me realize the importance of a union for amplifying worker’s voices.”
Anwar Omeish is a sophomore at Harvard College and member of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), an alliance of students, employees and labor activists at Harvard. As a Muslim woman of Libyan descent, the relationships she built with Muslim workers were important factors in her sustained involvement in campus labor organizing. “The only other Libyan person at the College is a worker,” Omeish said.
In her experience, the strike changed many students’ perception of Harvard. When students understood how Harvard was treating their workers, their reaction was “wow, does Harvard really do that? I wouldn’t have expected that from Harvard.” There was an “interesting shift in the way people viewed the institution,” Omeish said.
On October 25th, the Harvard administration and HUDS workers reached a tentative contract that according to Brian Lang, president of Local 26, had “achieved every goal, without exception.” It included a guaranteed minimum yearly salary of $35,000, summer employment, and no cuts to health care. Employees voted 583-1 to accept the contract on October 26th, and returned to work the next day. For many, the workplace felt different. The university had misrepresented their claims and positions, but they had won respect.
“Now that we’ve all been out,” says Rainey, “we all know what it’s like to struggle. We’re helping each other out more.” While employees might have been scared to push back against management individually for fear of getting in trouble, “when you realize it’s not just you, it affects everyone else as well, and you have people supporting you, you’re like ‘I can do this, I got this,’” said Rainey. Childs agreed. “Some of the meekest people were not meek anymore,” he noted. For many workers, the contract victory after weeks on strike was not the end, but the start of something new.
“Now, workers are ready to fight,” said Ahmed. “They’re not afraid any more.”
In the midst of the strike vote, on October 18th, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) filed a petition with the NLRB for an election to form their own union. This union encompasses all students who perform research and teaching work for the university: research assistants who work in labs or on projects for their advisors, as well as teaching assistants (also known as teaching fellows or course assistants) who create curricular content, manage course websites, lead discussion sections, grade papers and exams, and hold office hours, among other tasks. Out of around 3,500 student employees, most are doctoral students, but hundreds are also master’s degree candidates and undergraduates.
While student employee unions are common at public universities, they are new to the scene at most private universities. HGSU-UAW is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, an international union that represents 60,000 academic workers nationwide. In Boston, alongside Harvard, student employees are part of the UAW at Boston College, Northeastern, and UMass Boston; in New York City the UAW has conducted successful drives among academic workers at NYU, The New School, and Columbia. It was a petition from the student workers at Columbia that led last August to an NLRB ruling restoring the rights of private sector student workers to collectively bargain. This ruling sparked a new wave of organizing across the country, by the UAW and other international unions. The National Labor Relations Board ran the vote to form a union over two days, November 16th and 17th, in three polling locations across Harvard’s sprawling campus.
Why do Harvard student employees need a union? That’s always the first question that graduate student employee Christine Mitchell gets. It’s a question she initially had herself when she began graduate school. But as student government president at the School of Public Health, she was quickly exposed to the range of problems that student employees faced.
“Student workers face everything from sexual harassment, to difficult advisor relationships, to problems with health insurance, to late payment, to child care,” Mitchell said. Most fundamentally, though, was that even though students performed vital work for the university, student workers lacked any power to shape the policies that affected them.
“I was frustrated,” said Mitchell, “because I would hear this breadth of issues, and I would write letters, I would meet with a whole range of administrators, and very little would change.” For Mitchell, seeing what a union meant to dining services workers led her to join the union movement of student employees, which she came to believe was the best means to advocate for the interests of her own colleagues. “The power of a union is that when decisions are made, we are at that table, we have a voice, and we have the power of 3,500 [student workers] behind us, and the administration is legally required to listen to that and incorporate that into decisions that are made,” Mitchell said. Through a union contract, many of the issues faced by student workers could be addressed.
As with the dining hall workers strike, during the lead up to the union vote, there was strong push back from the Harvard administration. In town halls, faculty meetings, and emails sent to the entire student body, deans (advised by their anti-union lawyers) used rhetoric similar to the messaging around the HUDS strike. They stressed the immense privilege of being a student at Harvard, highlighting the benefits that students already received compared to peer institutions, and the alternative channels (like student government) that existed for addressing grievances. Administrators promoted an interpretation of unions familiar to student organizers nationwide, casting the union not as a democratic organization formed by students themselves, but rather as a disruptive outside third party transforming a “mentor” relationship into a “labor” relationship. While negotiating a contract through a union would provide predictability and transparency, administrators perversely portrayed student worker collective bargaining as completely uncharted territory with no guarantees.
“One of the more frustrating parts was how easily people bought the administration’s narrative and how uncritical they were of it,” said Mitchell.
The Harvard administration also encouraged and legitimated the campaign of a minority of anti-union students. Since 2002, many universities have copied the “At What Cost” union-busting campaign, developed by the Cornell administration, to counter incipient student worker unionization. Instead of the administration leading the attack (which can galvanize workers), one of this model’s central features is fostering an anti-union student group, allowing the administration to pose as “neutral” while in fact encouraging anti-union efforts. Without any accountability, a student anti-union group can spread false and harmful rumors, launch personal attacks, and, especially in the last days before the vote, create widespread fear and uncertainty.
“If we allow ourselves to be divided,” HUDS employee Childs said, “we lose.” The At What Cost strategy was fully on display in the Harvard student anti-union campaign. One of the most insidious rumors at Harvard was that unions were anti-immigrant and would harm international students. In reality, international students are some of the most vulnerable student employees, and like HUDS workers, a union would be able to offer them protections against discrimination, harassment, and unfair labor practices that Harvard currently does not. This anti-union student-led campaign was much more aggressive and more carefully coordinated at Harvard than at Columbia, where GWC-UAW recently won their union vote by a margin of nearly one thousand votes. The Harvard administration also left hundreds of names of eligible voters off the official voter list, the subject of objections to conduct of the election now being considered by the NLRB. While the final vote count at Harvard has yet to be resolved, it may turn out that this anti-union student effort did in fact spread fear, confusion, and uncertainty more effectively than the administration could have itself.
While the HUDS and HGSU-UAW campaigns differed, what they shared was the fundamental process of building democratic, collective power through organizing. Childs co-teaches a class, “Advocacy and Organizing,” open to all members of the Harvard and Cambridge community, in which students learn “rank and file leadership from the bottom.” Organizing, he argues, is the key to building a strong movement, and to do it you need to constantly be training new leaders. In HUDS, given the problem of turnover in recent years, leadership development has been critical.
“You have to constantly develop new people. You have to rely on other people that you’ve taught to teach each other,” he said. Omeish, who has taken and helped run this organizing class, notes “the importance of actually building your base in a way that is real.” Organizing is a particular challenge in this country, Childs argues, because the labor movement, and labor organizing, is now unfamiliar to most Americans after over fifty years of declining union membership.
“You don’t learn anything like this in high school or college,” Childs said, “and definitely not on TV.” But it is something that can be learned. The basic tool of organizing, Childs explains, is finding a shared struggle. “You’ve gotta throw off all notions” that organizing is just a matter of saying the right words, that “oh, we can just talk good to these people and we will win,” he said. Rather, Childs argues that you have to listen to people’s experiences, and connect one of their struggles to a shared struggle. “It’s about saying: ‘you have an issue? We have an issue. Let’s work on it together.’” In other words, organizing is helping people to think collectively about a common concern.
This is how Mitchell also described her organizing work among graduate students. “Organizing is about relationship building,” she said. “I was very conscious of making sure it was not an information dump: ‘here’s what the union is, here’s what we’re doing, here’s what other schools have done.’ Rather, it was asking ‘what are some issues that you’ve experienced here? How do you want to see Harvard do better? Here are some of the things we’ve heard, does that sound like some of the things you’ve heard?’”
Out of these individual relationships grows a larger community, and coalitions with other communities within and outside of Harvard. Childs touts the long history of HUDS forming coalitions with student groups, faculty, activist organizations, labor unions, and politicians around nearly every major progressive cause on campus — from LGBTQ rights to a living wage, from racial justice to fossil-fuel divestment, from women’s health to the rights of undocumented students. Coalitions are essential, in Childs’ view, because the employer’s strategy is always to pit workers against one another. “If you don’t go for a coalition you feel isolated, and you’re up against an employer by yourself,” he said.
Are there unique features of labor organizing on a university campus? Omeish points to the unique structural position of students. Most are not employees or management themselves, but they directly benefit from the work performed around them, and have some influence on the administration. Mitchell points out that university workers may have easier access to their fellow employees in labs and offices, even if they are divided geographically across multiple campuses. To Childs, the diversity of groups that make up a university community is its primary asset: between faculty, students, activist organizations and labor unions, you have an “automatic coalition” of those who seek to make the university a more just community.
In other ways, however, universities are not so different from other employers. Harvard has a long and illustrious history of union-busting, dating back to at least 1902 when President Eliot claimed that “the ‘scab’ is a modern hero” and President Lowell offered academic credit to students who travelled to Lawrence, Massachusetts to help break the “Bread and Roses” strike in 1912.
Today, students and dining hall employees also expressed disillusionment with the notion that institutions of learning like Harvard were somehow distinct from other workplaces. “Maybe a few years ago that’s what I used to think, that this is a unique place, that you deal with educated people,” said Ahmed. “But lately, nah. I think it’s similar to any other place that you work for.” According to Childs, the Harvard administration is a powerful employer that regularly exercised that power to intimidate. “The biggest thing the university threw at us was that they can kick the shit out of us,” Childs said.
Mitchell acknowledged that while a university supposedly trains students to think critically, especially about forms of power and influence, in the student worker campaign she saw how inciting fear was so effective. Coming right on the heals of a presidential election that itself produced fear and uncertainty, the anti-union campaign presented voting “no” as the safer option.
Yet labor organizers disagree. Union contracts will be essential, says Ahmed, to ensure the protections and security of workers in a new political environment. “The presence of the union is basically what is making these people not cross too many lines,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the union these people would walk on us right away.”
Childs sees the labor movement as uniquely poised to lead the resistance to Trump.
“I think he’s going to go after the unions first, which is a mistake on his part,” he said. While the labor movement may be “in terrible shape in terms of numbers and consciousness, it’s a national movement, it’s got resources, and it can shut down industry, and we have a lot of new leaders coming up,” Childs explained. Most importantly, it can provide the basis of a powerful national coalition.
“We cannot allow the divisions of Trump’s campaign to divide us,” he said. “These issues should be uniting us. If there’s an attack on the Muslim community, our workers are Muslims, our workers are immigrants, our workers are women. Whoever they attack, it’s an attack on everyone. If we can do that, we’ve won.”
For many involved in labor actions at Harvard this fall, their experiences have provided new tools to think about modes of resistance in the future. For Mitchell, union organizing is a way to bring new people into activism in the wake of Trump’s election. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who have been activated by this election but don’t know what to do about it,” she said. “It’s up to people who have done the work before to get those people involved, to show them how we come together to build power.”
Omeish hopes to use these experiences to continue organizing within Muslim communities. Childs also points to the new confidence that emerged out of the exercise of collective power.
“Our workers understood that when they were on strike, our dishwashers were much more powerful than any professor on campus,” he said. Rainey agreed that the strike demonstrated to her fellow workers that “we are stronger than we think we are.” The same tactics and resolve are going to be required in the months ahead. “Just like we fought administration,” she said, “we’re going to have to fight back against [Trump] as well.” She hopes “now that everyone has found their voice, they keep their voice.”
Organizing, we might say, is an education the practical realities of power. “In one day on a strike, you can learn more about politics than 10 years of debating in class,” said Childs.
On campuses across the country, organizing may now become a fundamental part of a university education.