One commenter on the Times article wrote, “Harvard Corporation's response to the strike has been cold and unfeeling. Rather than responding to the personal struggles of the strikers, they simply sent out an email with some cherry-picked statistics, basically calling the workers entitled. Harvard Corp also asked if any students would mind volunteering to set out sandwiches. Unsurprisingly, no one volunteered. It doesn't work like that Harvard, you have to pay people.”
Dining-hall employees who don’t have the opportunity to work at the university year-round aren’t able to collect unemployment because, as an educational institution, Harvard doesn’t have to pay that benefit.
The strike highlights growing tension around how wealthy institutions treat their workers, many of them immigrants of color, who keep the campuses running. These are institutions that have been criticized in recent years for educating predominantly well-off white students while failing to adequately open their doors to lower-income, often minority, scholars. While schools were not immune to the recession, many weathered the economic downturn far more easily than the workers who help sustain them.
A Harvard Magazine piece last year pointed out that one of the Harvard endowment’s managers earned more than $11 million in 2013. The school’s president, Drew Faust, makes in the upper six figures, but also has access to perks like an official residence and retirement benefits that take total compensation north of a million dollars annually.
Yet at the same time as the school’s top officials have pulled in lofty salaries and as big corporations beyond school gates have rebounded in the ensuing years, hourly-wage workers have continued to struggle, with median weekly earnings just surpassing a 2009 peak this March. Elite universities, which employ both highly compensated, highly respected academic leaders and low-wage workers who sometimes feel invisible, offer a depressing illustration of the widening gap between the richest and the poorest Americans.
And as cities have gentrified and young professionals earning good salaries have opted to put down roots in places like Boston and Los Angeles, neighborhoods that were previously accessible for hourly workers have grown too expensive, pushing families out of homes and communities they’ve lived in for decades.
A recent survey of workers in the University of California system, which has an endowment of more than $14 billion, found that seven in 10 workers in clerical, administrative, and support services struggle to afford enough healthy food for their families. Although the system, California’s third-largest employer, announced last year that it would pay employees and contract workers a minimum of $15 an hour, the highest of any public-university system in the country, the average wage of the workers in this latest study was already $22 an hour. A 2013 report from the California Budget Project found that a single parent with two kids needs to make about $36 an hour. A faculty strike also over wages and healthcare costs recently ended in Pennsylvania.