Harvard Food Workers Contract May Serve as ‘Standard’

Daily Labor Report® is the objective resource the nation’s foremost labor and employment professionals read and rely on, providing reliable, analytical coverage of top labor and employment...

By Tyrone Richardson

Nov. 2 — A new labor contract covering UNITE HERE-represented dining hall workers at Harvard University is expected to serve as the bellwether for pacts at nearby higher education institutions.

“Our point of view is that this is the new standard for dining hall workers and should be attained at any university in the Boston area,” Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 1.

Lang was referring to the recently ratified five-year collective bargaining agreement. It promises about 750 food service workers at the Cambridge, Mass., Ivy League university a $35,000 annual wage, no increased out-of-pocket costs for health insurance and a stipend of as much as $3,000 if laid off during the slow summer months.

The CBA does not include the university’s initial proposals, which sought to have the workers share in more of the cost of health insurance, mirroring coverage for about 5,000 other union-represented Harvard employees. Under the previous CBA, the Local 26-represented workers earned an average of $48,965; that amount included $33,839 in wages and $15,126 in benefits such as health care, paid time off, child care reimbursements and a pension, the school has said.

Future Contract Talks to Resemble Past

Higher wages and other demands could pepper similar labor contract negotiations, at least in the Boston area. One example could come in the spring, when Local 26 starts talks to replace an expiring CBA covering food service workers at Northeastern University in Boston.

Harvard is also negotiating a new labor contract covering about 700 janitorial staffers represented by Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. The two sides began talks in early October, seeking to replace a CBA that expires Nov. 15.

There are chances the negotiations may resemble what was sought for food service workers represented by the UNITE HERE local, according to Michael H. LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.

“Since the labor markets for food service and janitorial workers substantially overlap, I would expect SEIU to shoot for this compensation package,” he told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 1.

Local 32BJ spokesman Eugenio H. Villasante told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 2 “it’s great news” that the university’s dining hall workers ratified a new contract, but there are some differences between the two job categories.

One key difference: Custodians work throughout the year and therefore do not face unemployment during the summer months like food service workers, he said.

“But the goals are the same. The priority is for janitors to get a cost-of-living increase in wages, maintain quality healthcare and make sure they can live in the community,” Villasante said. “The Boston area is one of the most expensive areas to live in, in the country.”

Harvard spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 1 that there “is no minimum annual wage in conversation with SEIU.”

The university continues to “negotiate in good faith towards a mutually beneficial agreement,” she said.

Trend May Be Limited Geographically

The food service workers deal at Harvard may not affect deals covering food service workers at schools outside the Boston metro area, LeRoy added.

“Labor markets for food service are local, and therefore, I doubt there will be anything like an industry standard,” he said. “Nonetheless, the contract will bolster UNITE-HERE in its efforts to organize food workers on other campuses and other institutional settings.”

Adrienne Eaton, associate dean at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, agreed.

“I doubt it will be a pattern set across the country,” she said. “It could be that type of campaign and the student support could be a model, but not the actual details of the settlement as a model.”

Lang Nov. 1 told Bloomberg BNA that lessons can be shared within UNITE HERE, which represents about 270,000 workers. That includes some 100,000 in the food service industry, according to its website.

“There is going to be some discussions coming up, and there will be a debriefing and a reevaluation of approach with what we did at Harvard,” he said.

Next Up: Northeastern University

Lang also hinted that similar wage demands could rise in other local negotiations in coming months.

“What we did at Harvard is what we intend to do at other universities,” he said. “We want to have a conversation about annual income and what it takes to sustain a family. That includes healthcare, and if you raise health care costs, that brings annual income down.”

Local 26 represents about 2,000 food service workers tasked with serving food on college campuses in the Boston area. That includes employees and contract workers at schools such as Northeastern University, Emerson College and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Ratified Harvard Contract a Bargaining Chip?

Rutgers’ Eaton cautioned that comparing Harvard workers with those at other schools does not guarantee leverage at the bargaining table.

“There is no science to that. One of the struggles is who do you look at as a comparison,” she said. “Sometimes the labor and management can agree with that comparison, and sometimes they can disagree. Sometimes that can be used at the table and if that’s a good comparison to prove your case.”

Still, the local’s next effort to set such standards could come during negotiations for a new contract covering about 400 contract food service workers at Northeastern. The current CBA expires in August 2017.

Even though the workers are employed by Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services, Northeastern will make the final decision about the contract details, Lang added.

“Ultimately what happens is the clients have to approve the contracts, at least the economics of the contract because ultimately they end up paying for it,” he said. “Northeastern has a responsibility for these workers because they either agree or not to pay for the cost of the contract.”

Northeastern is taking a hands-off approach with the negotiations.

“The upcoming contract negotiations will take place between the union and our food service vendor,” Northeastern spokeswoman Renata Nyul said in a written statement. “We have every expectation that these two parties will reach a mutually beneficial agreement.”

Chartwells spokeswoman Meredith Bracken did not respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment. Chartwells is a division of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the summary of the Harvard food service contract is available at http://src.bna.com/jM9

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.