When a Harvard University dining hall manager called two women workers “lesbians” in an attempt to intimidate and insult them, the response from the workers, their union and students was to mount a fightback.
The two women, who are members of UNITE-HERE Local 26, complained that they felt threatened and that the manager was trying to divide them from their lesbian/gay/bi and trans coworkers and the students to whom they serve meals everyday.
The women’s LGBT coworkers and the union shop stewards organized the workers in many of the dining halls to wear rainbow ribbons in solidarity with them. Many students also started wearing rainbow ribbons in solidarity with this campaign. Janice Loux, president of UNITE-HERE Local 26, issued a solidarity statement not only in her capacity as president of the union, but also as an openly lesbian union leader.
UNITE-HERE, upon further investigation, found out from workers that Harvard management has been using anti-LGBT, anti-woman and racist language as well as anti-immigrant remarks. During the Obama campaign when enthusiastic supporters, particularly African-American workers, talked about him or wrote his name proudly on boxes and bags at the workplace, they were called into the office and reprimanded.
“When there is an economic crisis, racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry are used to divide workers at a time when they are being attacked. At Harvard we are being set upon by layoffs and cutbacks. These acts of intimidation are used to divide workers and hinder us from carrying on a struggle to save our jobs and fight the cutbacks,” said Ed Childs, a cook and chief shop steward of UNITE-HERE who represents the dining hall workers.
The union currently has strong language in its contract against intimidation and attacks based on sexual orientation and for respect for all workers. This language was the product of talking to many workers, students and faculty at Harvard to get their views.
After this recent incident, the union, in an effort to strengthen and deepen the language, again began meeting with the workers and various student groups that are most affected by these attacks, including the Harvard BGLT Student Association, the Harvard Black Student Union, the Trans Student Alliance, the Women’s Center, the Black Women’s Association and the Harvard Islamic Society. Four meetings have taken place. They have also joined forces with the Stop the Layoffs Campaign at Harvard.
The view of many groups and workers is that Harvard management would not have felt emboldened to do these things without outside influence from right-wing movements or currents. These include Prop 8 backers and racist forces opposed to Obama, along with anti-immigrant propaganda spreaders.
“The union is taking these attacks very seriously. They go along with the cuts and layoffs that are already taking place. Harvard hired a guy from Goldman Sachs to run their finances who is a union buster. But all our members are very clear on the old union slogan, ‘United we stand, divided we fall,’ and we will fight back,” stated Childs.
Childs is chief shop steward for UNITE-HERE Local 26; Eckfeldt is a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, AFSCME, Local 3650.
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