Notes from the Underground by Karen Narefsky
Author’s note: This organizing campaign took place throughout the summer and fall of 2011. It was led by a team of seven organizers (three students, three union workers, and one union organizer), as well as a committee of 12-15 law school workers. Not all of them are featured in this story, but they were all crucial members of the team. This victory would not have been won without them.
On an early autumn evening, a cook and a student follow the concrete trails of I-93 from Cambridge to Revere, on a hill between the highway and the sea. The glowing blue Ys of the Zakim Bridge shrink in our rearview mirror, like divining rods searching for hidden wealth in the vast dusky sky.
We are on our way to the homes of unorganized food service workers to talk to them about their jobs and about forming a union. We typically do house visits in pairs, one union worker and one student. The workers know about the benefits of being in a union and can address fears and concerns with the confidence of their lived experience. They also have cars. Eddie, whose hands rest steadily on the wheel, has been a shop steward in the union for nearly forty years. His voice flows with the gravelly rasp and broad ahs of a Boston accent; his eyes mirror the electric blue of the Zakim’s footlights. A college dropout, he knows more about the world than most Harvard students I’ve met. He ends every email with the signature A better world is in birth, and he truly believes it. He has believed it ever since 1973, when he walked out of his job as a janitor in the Hancock building and joined the March Against Racism and the War. To a young man from the projects of Somerville, the presence of 10,000 people fighting against racism and militarism was beyond anything he’d experienced. When the police attempted to block the marchers from entering Harvard Square, his street smarts were instantly engaged. Growing up in the projects, I always hated rumbles. There was no point to them. But that rally was like a political rumble, he tells me, and I loved it.
Soon after, he dropped out of UMass to take a job as a cook in the Harvard dining halls, which had just become part of UNITE HERE, a national union for hospitality workers. The Harvard food service workers had been unionized since 1937, but Eddie took the job to build up the union and make it stronger. For nearly forty years, he has helped his coworkers file grievances and organize against the boss when harassment occurs or pay stubs are short. He sees these grievances as the early battles of the class war. If and when the revolution comes, he’ll be atop the barricades.
I have never been involved in a rumble, nor does the inside of my wallet enfold a union card. My presence here signifies something different: a display of solidarity beyond the strict bounds of class. Throughout my time as an undergraduate, I have organized students in support of workers on campus. I have seen the increased job security and sense of empowerment that come with union membership, and I believe these are the first steps toward the society I would like to see, which includes real power for workers. I have also seen an increased reliance on subcontracting, rather than direct employment, undercut this empowerment by lowering wages and isolating workers. And as a Harvard student, I feel a certain responsibility for the role of my own institution in such matters: the workers we are organizing are employees of a food service contractor at the Harvard Law School.
As we descend onto the grade-level road, our conversation turns to strategy. We have now visited close to half of the 60 workers in this particular place, and we have found enough worker leaders that we are ready to have our first committee meeting. These leaders, the people who wield the most influence among their co-workers, will gather in a room with the organizers and strategize about how to facilitate the signing of union cards. Each of the leaders holds sway over a different group of his or her co-workers, with the groups falling along the lines of skill and ethnicity: caterers, cashiers, blacks, Brazilians, Spanish-speakers.
The suburban and quasi-suburban trio of East Boston, Chelsea, and Revere contain the majority of the Spanish-speaking workers. The homes we have visited here are simple and aged-looking, coated in peeling paint. In East Boston and Chelsea, the buildings stand shoulder-to-shoulder, pouring bachata and the smell of pupusas back and forth through the open windows. In Revere, where we are headed, they have lawns, and the names on the mailboxes are more likely to be typed on a label maker than written by hand.
We pull over at the top of Nela’s block. She has worked as a cook at HLS for over ten years, and more than one worker has mentioned her as someone who isn’t afraid to stand up to the managers. We are here to see whether she is willing to do so along with her co-workers, despite what we know is a significant language barrier. Her mailbox label is cut from a magazine addressed to the home. The smell of fresh paint sealant lingers in the vestibule, and the bitter sting in my nostrils feels incongruous with the clean white walls of the room itself. We begin by ringing the doorbell.
Nela and her husband Alen open the door. They are big, hearty people; they smile warmly at us and usher us in. We sit side by side on the couch, while Nela settles in an armchair next to it, smiling the pregnant smile of a woman who has much to say and much difficulty saying it. There is an immense flat-screen TV facing the couch on which we are seated. They are watching a Bosnian news channel, and the screen shows President Obama delivering a speech full of guttural vowels and consonant combinations not usually attributable to his flowing oratorical style. I wonder what his speeches sound like to a Bosnian, and how the language of democracy translates to a couple who fled their ravaged homeland to post-Cold War Germany, then to Revere.
We are visiting Nela because she is a leader, despite the language barriers she faces. She isn’t afraid to tell the boss when she or one of her co-workers is being treated unfairly. In this workplace, such treatment is common. At least three women in their mid-60s, formerly cashiers, have been reclassified as runners, a job that includes moving chairs and lifting large boxes of silverware. A fourth cashier was written up and fired, after 12 years of work, for having $10 extra in her till at the end of the day. Given such treatment, Nela’s apparent lack of fear is heartening. She tells us that when she objected to her transfer from the salad bar to the kitchen, the managers accused her of racism. They say I am not vant to work with black workers. For me is not question of color. In my country it is not point. Black, brown, yellow, whatever. For me, is not point. I am here for to work. Everyone is come for work.
We tell her about the committee meeting on Sunday. Okay, she says, I will be there. No doubts, no hesitations. She is ready for a fight. At that moment, Alen re-enters with two bottles of Beck’s. We protest. Eventually, we leave with a handful of peanuts and a large bar of chocolate each. One down, nine to go.
We got Nela’s address and those of her co-workers months ago, long before the word “union” was spoken in the walls of the Harkness Cafeteria. Fear and resentment run rampant among the workers, and not without reason: over the last few years, employees have had their hours cut and their workloads increased. The vacant hours are filled by temporary workers, who don’t qualify for healthcare and other benefits. Workers are required to call in sick two days in advance in order to receive a paid sick day, a regulation difficult to comply with if one is afflicted with any normal illness. Schedules are irregular and not always posted. Workers have been instructed not to hug one another or socialize with the customers. Drinking bottled water on the job is forbidden.
Because of this, we don’t talk to workers in the workplace itself. Though it is against the law to do so, nothing prevents a non-union employer from firing an employee if they are suspected of trying to organize. Even complaining about workplace conditions is likely to precipitate termination. Instead, we visit them at their homes to talk about working conditions.
The first time we visited Nela, we weren’t sure if she was a leader, even though we’d heard about her from Consuelo, a Salvadoran catering worker who seemed to know and understand everyone in the workplace. Nela insisted that she loved her job.
I am make good wages, work hard.
Is there anything you would change about your job, if you could?
A leak in the dam. She glanced at the porcelain statues on the brick mantelpiece, as though looking to them for reinforcement. Is too much work. I am work hard, but I am not robot.
Have you ever talked to Maryann about having too much work?
The floodgates open. She say, if you have too much work, ask someone for help. Who is going to help? No one else knows my job. I am only one knows how to do salad bar. Even if someone else know, everyone is busy. Everyone has too much work, no one have time to help me. But Maryann, she not listen when I say this. I respect manager, why she not also respect me. When I have problem, I am not talk, how you say, behind back. I am talk face mit face.
This is a common pattern with worker leaders, especially immigrants. They are initially reluctant to complain about their working conditions, since complaints are so easily equated with laziness. I’ve come here to work, their defiant optimism seems to say, and I have no right to complain if the work is hard. But slowly the line between hard work and exploitation begins to crystallize, and the seeds of a struggle are planted.
The subcontracted food service industry in this country is controlled by three companies: Compass, Aramark, and Sodexo. When food service workers are not directly employed by the institutions where they work, they are likely to work for one of these companies, who contract with the institutions to manage the food operations. Known as the “big three” to industry insiders, they employ 100,000 workers each, and move as much money every year as McDonald’s.
Nela’s employer, Restaurant Associates, is one of the big three. They manage food operations at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, in addition to their contract at the Law School, but those workers are members of UNITE HERE and work under the terms of the directly hired workers’ contract with the university. For unknown reasons, the Law School is the only place at Harvard in which the food service workers do not have a union.
Institutions like hospitals, universities, hotels, and airports contract their service work for a variety of reasons. It relieves them of the burden of managing employees, and absolves them of the responsibility of following both laws and norms. Employees and labor activists can take legal action, of course (and often do), but to a company making $9 billion a year, legal fees are a mere fly to be swatted. In Pennsylvania, food service workers at two major hospitals have brought a class-action lawsuit against Sodexo, claiming that the company had forced them to work unpaid hours in order to make up a shortage in revenue. The lowest-paid workers at these hospitals make $8.25 an hour. The poverty line is $10.60.
The mid-afternoon sky is overcast as we trickle into a church social hall for the first committee meeting, but rather than casting a pall over the event, it creates a sense of coziness inside the church. Nela is the first of the workers to arrive, quickly joined by Harriet, a tall, motherly African-American woman in her sixties. Harriet’s hair is short and silvery-platinum, a shiny echo of the rainy September sky. She wears a brown tracksuit and gestures emphatically with her long fingers as she talks, criticizing the managers’ lack of respect for the workers.
We come to do our work, why don’t they just let us do our work? I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’m old enough to be their mother. If they see me sittin’ for a minute, they say, “Isn’t there something you could be doing right now?” Well, I’m waiting for someone to come to the cash register so I can check them out.
Maybe you vant I sew my mouth shut, so I not talk to anyone, Nela adds, addressing the absent managers with derision.
We just keep bitching to each other, but we can’t do anything. Harriet’s pronouncement is one of exasperation, but not discouragement. Six months ago, she considered quitting, if only the job market weren’t so desperate – she’s worked here as a cashier for nine years, and her weekly hours have been cut from 40 to 25. She often wakes early and takes the T from her home in Dorchester to arrive at work by 7:00 in the morning, only to be told four hours later to “go home; there’s not enough work for you today,” causing her to lose nearly half of what should be her weekly paycheck. How can I go on like this? she has begun to ask herself. I’m a grandmother, not a college student. I need a solid job so I can keep myself going and retire with a little something. I need respect and I need forty hours a week. If the union can get us that, God bless.
We arrange ourselves around the circular table in the church social hall, addressing one another over the incongruous centerpiece of a child’s art project: fragmented seashells and pipe cleaners glued to a sheet of black construction paper. The social hall is cavernous; we could easily spread out throughout the room, but then we would not be able to hear one another.
Two of the worker leaders, Consuelo and Agustin, speak only Spanish. If necessary, they could communicate in broken English almost as well as Nela can, but because I speak Spanish, I translate for them as the meeting goes on. I sit between them and listen intently to everything that is said, speaking it aloud in Spanish several seconds later. I have done this a few times before. I compare it to a saxophonist’s circular breathing: my brain must process the English and repeat it in Spanish while still listening for the next sentence. I have studied Spanish for ten years, but I’m just starting as an organizer and they don’t teach you labor Spanish in middle school. Sometimes I can tell by the politely befuddled look on Agustin’s face that I’m not making sense, and I have to ask everyone else to stop talking so I can sort out the confusion and catch up. Pausa means a break if you are talking about a commercial break on TV, but it is not synonymous with descanso, which connotes the breaks the workers are so often forced to forgo. Sometimes I use we to refer to the workers, including myself in their struggle, and sometimes I use a plural you. I feel my facial muscles tense and my voice rise in volume as I try to keep up. This part is exhausting, yet exhilarating. Without these Spanish-speaking leaders, we’ll have no chance of getting the majority of the workplace to overcome their fears.
Agustin is known as Don Agustin by the other Spanish-speaking men in the workplace, a term of deep respect. He is from El Salvador, another escapee from war who has landed in this struggle. His demeanor is calm and graceful, his round face stoic under his slicked-back hair. He cocks his head slightly and leans forward to indicate to me that he has something to say. After he nods slowly to punctuate the story, I repeat it, using his pronouns as my own: Two weeks ago I had a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day. I came to work in the morning, then I came back after my appointment. Maryann told me I had to do a full day’s worth of work, even though I was gone for three hours in the middle. It doesn’t make sense. How can they ask this of us?
Dana, the union organizer, is wearing a plaid flannel shirt. He asks each of us to introduce ourselves and say why we are here, then throws out a question. Bodies swivel urgently in the hard-backed church chairs as faces meet his gaze.
When I talk to workers in a non-union workplace, they usually ask me one question. Some of you might be wondering this as well, and when you talk to your co-workers, they’re going to ask it: What’s the union going to do for me?
It’s a good question. You want to know my answer? Nothing.
The union’s not going to do anything for you. You are the union. A union is workers fighting for themselves. When you have a union, you’ll decide the issues that are most important to you, and a staff member will help you negotiate those concerns with the boss. But the union isn’t a bunch of people coming in from outside to solve all your problems. If I march into the manager’s office and say, “Maryann, you need to post schedules two weeks in advance,” she’s not going to listen to me. But if 50 workers march into her office demanding posted schedules, that group will have the strength to win. I can’t say that we’ll be able to change everything. But I can say that if we don’t come together, nothing will change.
The meeting lasts two and a half hours. By the end, we’ve filled a piece of butcher paper with a diagram of all the workers and who leads whom. We’ve already visited more than half of the workers and gotten their support; this is indicated by a red mark next to their name. Others have been uncertain or actively hostile; we mark them with a question mark and ask the committee members to take on assignments.
Harriet volunteers to talk to a caterer who lives near her in Dorchester. Consuelo knows a Colombian cashier who used to be part of the union at a Financial District office building. Nela says she will have a conversation with the man who works at the counter next to her, making pizza. Her round face shifts into a determined grin.
Two weeks later, Eddie and I are at a local bar meeting with Brian, a cashier and the longest-serving worker on the night shift. As with Nela, we have heard from many people that Brian is a leader. We don’t have many contacts with night shift workers, so it’s important for us to make a connection with him.
A tall, skinny African-American man in his mid-thirties, Brian sips his beer and listens as Eddie extols the virtues of being in a union. We support each other. You all are our brothers and sisters, so we want yez to be part of the union so we can be stronger. How many vacation days you get now?
I don’t know.
You don’t know your vacation time?
Nah, they don’t put it on my pay stub. I guess it would be nice to know it. But I don’t take a lot of vacation time. I like to work hard, keep active. I’m one of those people where I gotta be working all the time, otherwise I get myself into trouble.
What’s the thing you’d most like to change about your job? I ask.
What would I like to change… Brian thinks for a moment, moving his fingers through his dreadlocks. There’s no cohesion between the AM shift and the PM shift. The AM shift is supposed to clean up after themselves, so we can get started right away, but that ain’t never how it happens.
Why do you think that is?
See, a lot of people are new, just got hired. I been there for five years, the longest out of anyone on my shift. So people don’t really know how to do things, and then I got to spend half my time running around after them, cleaning up their mess.
Eddie and I keep probing, hoping Brian’s frustration will align itself against the boss rather than against his co-workers. But he doesn’t know the other night shift workers all that well, and he seems to look down on them. He feels confident that the manager won’t cut his hours, and as long as he has enough hours to support himself and his two-year-old son, he’s not worried. He’s polite, but guarded. We’ll have to try again.
Our fourth committee meeting takes place not in the church, but in an ornate conference room in Harvard Yard. It’s mid-October, and we are ready to collect cards from all the workers affirming their desire to form a union. Seated in Veritas chairs around a glass table, like shareholders at a board meeting, we introduce ourselves once again. Several new leaders have emerged since that gray September day. Among them is Natalia, a Brazilian catering worker with a serious expression and long brown hair tied up under a polka-dotted headband. When we first spoke to a catering worker, we were told that Natalia was a manager, and so we avoided visiting her house until she called my cellphone, demanding to know how she could become a part of the union. As it turns out, she is a supervisor on an hourly wage, not a salaried manager, and as such is eligible for union membership. She shows up at the committee meeting full of outrage: management has repeatedly ignored her application for the company 401(k) plan.
Nela is not present, but Consuelo is, and so is her eight-year-old grandson. Another woman has brought her ten-year-old son, and the two boys play noisily on the room’s wooden floor, blissfully ignorant of the gravity of the multiple conversations going on above their heads.
Harriet, who can you get to sign cards? Dana is taking notes on a large flip chart, writing the names of the workers in columns below their assigned leaders.
I can talk to Cathy, Maria…
Vroom vroom! Look how fast my car goes!
Crash! I got you!
Cuando tenemos firmadas las cartas, ¿las debemos entregar a ustedes?
Dana, Agustin wants to know if they should turn the cards in to us when they’re signed.
Natalia, what about you?
Dana, Agustin has a question.
What? Say that again.
Devon, be quiet!
By the end of the meeting I need a cup of tea and a Tylenol. Between the translation, the kids, the logistics, and the questions, I have only a vague idea of what was decided upon in these three hours. I have never been part of a union drive before, and I have no idea what to expect.
We collect the cards over a period of three days, Monday through Wednesday. Ideally, we’ll have over 70% of cards signed by the end of the day on Tuesday, before the boss finds out what we’re up to. The leaders signed their cards at the Friday meeting, so we’ve got a head start of ten. Everything on the cards has to be faultless: full signatures, correct dates, the company’s name written unabbreviated. We can’t give Restaurant Associates a chance to defeat us.
The cards are pre-printed in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Haitian Creole, with space for the workers to sign their names below a sentence demanding union representation. When we are confident that a supermajority of workers has signed them, we will notify the management, leaving two options for certification: a process known as card check, where an arbitrator checks the signatures against the employees’ hire forms, or a formal election. Card check is preferable, as the drawn-out election process allows time for management to run an anti-union campaign. The Employee Free Choice Act, as it was originally proposed to the House of Representatives in 2009, would have legitimized card check and eliminated the need for formal elections.
Many of the workers are supportive of a union, but they have not yet had to confront active resistance from the boss. The more workers we can get to sign cards, the greater the chance that management will agree to card check. If not enough people sign, the campaign can be easily dismissed as the grumblings of a few discontented people. It all rests on how effectively we have organized the workers and identified the leaders.
The organizing team sets up a command center in the Greenhouse Café, where the unionized workers know what we are up to and stop by our tables to meet the HLS workers as they drop off cards. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the organizers take turns sitting in the Café, keeping in touch with the workers by phone and collecting cards as they are signed. Dana checks them for mistakes, then puts them in a yellow mailing envelope. Typically paranoid, I wonder to myself what would happen if they got lost.
At 11 a.m., Natalia arrives with signed cards from the entire catering department. She consults the list of remaining workers, grabs a new handful of cards, and marches back out.
When I show up outside the student center to talk to Brian, he and Natalia are already engaged in conversation. He regards her steadily, without emotion. When she enters the building to punch in for work, I approach him.
Hi Brian, how are things?
Going fine. I gotta run, though. I’m picking up my son from daycare. I walk with Brian to the Red Line, walking briskly to keep pace with his much longer legs. As we walk, I attempt to draw him out. He’s responded to all of my phone calls, but remains ambivalent, saying he still has a lot of questions.
What are your questions? I’m happy to talk about them.
Bunch of things. I just don’t know. I wanna talk to some more folks. To be honest with you, I just don’t feel like my job’s in a lot of danger. I wanna know what I’m getting myself into.
We bounce back and forth, making little progress, until we reach the subway station and I watch him descend the steps.
Throughout the evening, I get calls from Natalia and Consuelo to announce that they are bringing over more cards. ¡Hola Karen, soy Ana! Gracias Karen, she says, her voice high and animated. Natalia’s intonation is more tempered, her Brazilian accent nasal. Hi Karen, I got the cards from Fatima and José. I can bring them over to you now? By the end of the day on Wednesday, 94% of the 62 workers have signed cards. Brian isn’t one of them.
The early days of December are unseasonably warm. They reflect the good spirits in the air on the last Friday of classes, when a representative from the employer’s labor relations office, Dana, Eddie, Natalia, and I meet with the arbitrator. Because of the overwhelming majority of support from the workers, the company has agreed to card check. If the arbitrator can verify that the signatures represent a majority of the workers, they will join the 550 unionized food service workers at Harvard, and bargain a contract with the company.
The arbitrator shuffles in his chair, jokes about how he got rejected from Harvard. Everyone smiles politely. Dana taps his fingers under the table. When he is ready to begin counting, the arbitrator asks everyone to leave the room. We chat. Natalia tells us that the managers have been acting worse than usual. They threw away the Thanksgiving pies that the faculty had ordered for the workers.
After half an hour, the arbitrator calls us back in. In many ways, we know the answer already, but hearing it from a neutral party feels so officially joyous that it’s almost anti-climactic. We break into applause and hug one another. Once the official paperwork is signed, we walk up to the cafeteria and start spreading the news. Dana has brought a cake from a Chinatown bakery. Eddie pulls a handful of union buttons from his pocket and starts pinning them on the workers. Brothers and sisters, welcome to the union!
Karen Narefsky is a recent Harvard graduate and a member of the John Reed Society. She teaches ESL, organizes, and serves coffee in Boston and Somerville.