On Students and Striking Workers

Thinking about the Harvard strike and the strike that happened when I was a student at Miami University.

Photo credit: frankieleon, CC BY 2.0.

The summer reading book for my junior year of college was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. If you haven’t read it, it’s totally Billfoldy; Ehrenreich takes jobs in food service, housecleaning, and retail and tests the theory that anyone with a full-time job can earn enough to pay for rent, food, and transportation. (Spoiler alert: the theory fails. Also, she did all of this in 1998, when the economy was theoretically “good.”)

Ehrenreich was invited to speak at Miami University’s 2002 convocation, because they always invited the person who wrote the summer reading book, and I’m not sure if anyone expected Ehrenreich to end her speech by inviting all of us to march to the administrative building and show our support for Miami workers who weren’t earning a living wage, but that’s what happened.

Soon after, those workers—janitorial, food service, maintenance—went on strike. I remembered the strike as beginning immediately after Ehrenreich’s speech, but this timeline, which I found in a Miami student’s thesis, states that the strike didn’t start for another month.

Either way, it was a strange place to be if you were a smart and relatively privileged kid who wanted to do the right thing but had multiple people telling you what that “right thing” was. We had faculty telling us that we had to cross picket lines to get to class, otherwise we’d lose points, miss tests, potentially fail. We had other faculty telling us that they wished they didn’t have to penalize us for supporting the strike, but they had this attendance policy, and skipping class was an unexcused absence. We had faculty saying that when they were college students, they would have supported the workers, but they knew that we couldn’t miss class or miss our shifts at our jobs or miss these lives we were supposed to have. Life was just more complicated for us, these smart and relatively privileged children who wanted to do the right thing.

I remember that the striking workers made it easier on us by not actively picketing in areas where students had to walk to get to class. I might be remembering this in a way that is more favorable to my conscience, but I don’t recall ever pushing past striking people. They had their part of campus, denoted by a large inflatable skunk, and we had ours.

I also remember that I received a care package from my family that year, one of those enormous cellophane-wrapped baskets that were packed with snacks and candy, the kind of thing I had always wanted because I saw it one of Miami’s catalogs and assumed that meant it should be part of my college experience. It was the only time I would get one of those baskets—honestly, very few people ever got one, they were kind of ridiculous—and it took me maybe five minutes to decide to give it to the striking workers, who had recently asked the community to donate food. I lugged the giant basket down to the picket line and dropped it off, because that’s what the March sisters did, that’s what Sara Crewe did, that’s what good people did, and I wanted to be a good person. This was a way to do it that felt like a sacrifice and didn’t require missing class.

Then, at some point, the strike ended. Did the workers get what they wanted? I had to look it up to find out:

The strike at Miami University of Ohio

The strike at Miami University of Ohio is over and although we did not gain much monetarily, we consider it a big first step and a great moral victory. We went out against the odds. We had no previous strike experience, no strike fund, and less than half our bargaining unit with us. And we were up against a university administration that does not see its workers as having intrinsic worth and has a lot of money available to spend on keeping us down.

Anyway, I was reminded of all of that when I read Slate’s piece on the workers striking at Harvard:

The Harvard Dining-Hall Workers’ Strike Is Brilliantly Weaponizing Students

Harvard Square was barely blinking — but that’s not the audience the strikers have been hoping to reach. Like any business, it’s their customers whose respect they need to maintain, and so far, students are peeved. The union, which represents workers around the country, may also be signaling to other institutions that improvement need to be made — and that it is happy to weaponize worker-friendly student bodies in order to agitate for better conditions.

There is a lot I don’t like about that paragraph—the “students are customers” aspect, the phrase “weaponize worker-friendly student bodies,” but I’m guessing that today’s students, especially ones passionate about social justice, aren’t just going to toss down a gift basket and run to class.

Hundreds of Students Leave Class to Support HUDS Strike | News | The Harvard Crimson

The protests began at 10:30 a.m., when Divinity students gathered at HDS before proceeding to the Science Center Plaza to join striking HUDS workers for a rally. Soon after, hundreds of College students walked out of their afternoon classes at 12:30 p.m., before meeting HUDS strikers by the John Harvard statue to hold another rally organized by the Student Labor Action Movement, an undergraduate activist group.

Support HUDS Workers | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson

We hope that Harvard and the HUDS workers can reach an agreement before Sept. 17, the expiration date of the union’s contract with Harvard. Nevertheless, we will support HUDS and whatever course of action they pursue in this negotiation process. HUDS workers should not have to accept drastic cuts to their healthcare, or feel compelled to work overtime in order to earn a living wage. Therefore, we will support HUDS workers in a strike if Harvard does not make reasonable concessions.

What should I have done, when I was a Miami student? What would you have done? Would this be an easier choice to make in today’s educational environment, or a harder one? What should a student do, if they want to do the right thing?

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