Food service workers at Harvard University voted in favor of a new five-year contract Wednesday, ending the first strike at the Ivy League school in 33 years.
Workers will return to campus dining halls Thursday nearly a month after walking out in protest over low wages and rising health-care costs. The fight sparked debates about whether one of the richest universities, a school with a $37 billion endowment, should be doing more for some of its lowest-paid workers.
Harvard has agreed to up their wages from $33,800 to $35,000 a year, with additional compensation paid in three installments during the summer months, when most of the workers are furloughed. The Ivy League school is also providing retroactive wage increases at 2.5 percent a year, on par with other unionized workers on campus, according to UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents 750 Harvard food service employees. The increase is retroactive to when the contract expired, in June.
Harvard also dialed back proposed changes to the workers’ health-care plan by waiting two years before increasing out-of-pocket expenses for doctor visits. The university said all along that it would cover 87 percent of the premiums for workers earning less than $55,000.
“The university has sought a resolution that maintains superior compensation for our dining workers, acknowledging their role as integral members of the Harvard community,” Katie Lapp, executive vice president at Harvard, said in a note to the school community Tuesday. “We also sought an agreement that recognizes the importance of carefully stewarding university finances as we pursue our academic mission in a period of constrained resources. We are confident that this agreement achieves both of these goals.”
Many students at Harvard stood with the workers. An estimated 600 students walked out of class in support of the food service workers Monday, with at least 250 of them staging a sit-in at the administration building where negotiations were being held. Many remained in the lobby well into the evening as both parties hammered out a tentative agreement.
A spokeswoman for the union noted that the copays would be instituted in 2019 but paid for by the university; dining-hall workers will not pay anymore for their health care during the entire life of the agreement. In an email, spokeswoman Tiffany Ten Eyck wrote, “In a 583 to 1 vote, workers ratified an agreement that meets all their core issues. Dining hall workers will return to work Thursday morning!”