An Ivy League school with a 10-figure endowment and alumni who include presidents and billionaires, Harvard University has long been considered the epitome of wealth and privilege. Like its less-esteemed peers, however, Harvard’s daily operations depend on an invisible army of clerks, administrative assistants, maintenance crews, and groundskeepers.
So when food-service workers went on strike against the university earlier this month, it cast a spotlight on the dark underside of higher education: institutions that often charge students more for tuition than they pay employees critical to their function.
Picket lines around Harvard in downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts, began when the food-service employees walked off the job on Oct. 5, after the school balked at their request for a minimum salary of $35,000. Harvard can afford it, they argue, because the university’s endowment is more than $35 billion—the largest of any private university.
It’s “the richest university in the world” and just put an additional $7 billion into its coffers, yet “Harvard is failing to provide a livable existence for its lowest-paid and hardest-working employees,” faculty member Tim McCarthy said during a rally last week.
Harvard isn’t alone: A survey of full-time administrative workers within the University of California system found that 45 percent of them sometimes go hungry. That includes library assistants and collections representatives who choose between paying rent and buying groceries, and many hold degrees from the same university system that pays them so poorly.
“There are graduates of the University of California, working for the University of California, and they’re still not making enough money after three, five, 10, or even 15 years [on the job] to put food on the table,” said Peter Dreier, an author and politics professor at Occidental College, who conducted the study.
“That’s pretty amazing, pretty tragic, pretty troublesome,” he said. The system, Drier told TakePart, is “becoming the Walmart of public education.”
The Harvard strike, and Dreier’s survey, illustrate a confluence of trends that have yet to be tackled: the spiraling cost of higher education, spurred in part by a lack of investment at the state and federal level; the Great Recession, a financial tsunami that wiped out working- and middle-class gains; and the widening economic gap between the haves and have-nots.
Last year, in the Million Student March, college students nationwide walked out of classrooms to demonstrate against the high cost of a college degree and the low starting wages paid to schools’ blue- and white-collar employees. The demands of the Million Student March included debt-free college, student-loan forgiveness, and a $15-an-hour minimum salary for campus workers most schools should realize are indispensable.
At Harvard, along with a boost in starting salaries, the dispute between the school and the workers centers on steep hikes in the health care premiums and copays that employees would have to pay out-of-pocket under a new contract. An analysis found that the workers would have to pay $40 to $100 for emergency-room visits, and inpatient and outpatient copays would spike from $0 to $100.
That’s despite the fact that Harvard University Dining Services workers don’t earn a living wage by Massachusetts’ high standards, another sticking point in the dispute. Most make around $21.89 an hour, or $33,839 a year, according to the school, but housing near the university is so expensive it can easily eat up half that salary.
While the university has refused to budge so far, the striking workers have powerful allies, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who taught law at the school before being elected to represent the state in Washington, D.C. Harvard’s students are also on their side: Student leaders have organized walkouts, and roughly 3,000 undergraduates have signed a petition supporting the strike, even though some have complained about undercooked meals and dirty dishes in the campus dining halls.
The university’s faculty has circulated its own petition in support of the strike, noting the school’s $35 billion endowment, its ongoing capital campaign, and its refusal to support the workers.
As members of the campus community, “we appreciate that HUDS workers not only serve food, but create and nourish community in ways that are absolutely invaluable to this institution,” the faculty petition states. “We call on the Harvard Administration to do the right thing to end this strike. Until then, we stand in solidarity with the HUDS workers.”
Though he can’t say for sure how widespread such disparities are between colleges and their full-time employees, Dreier said his study and the Harvard strike underscore that top higher-education administrators—some of whom make 10 times as much as the person who serves them lunch—must do more to increase the pay of the “worker bees” they depend on, whether they realize it or not. He noted that, after finding out students were going hungry, some campuses offered classes in budgeting and making the most of cheap food.
The employees “don’t need charity. They don’t need to know how to shop or budget,” Drier said. “They need more money in their pockets. They need justice.”
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