February 1, 2002

Harvard to hike its lowest wages

By DAVID ABEL, The Boston Globe

In a long-awaited decision, Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers yesterday promised that the university would boost the wages of its lowest-paid employees above the ''living wage'' that scores of students demanded in protests last spring.

However, Summers ruled out setting a permanent wage floor, the rallying cry of the students who spent three weeks last spring occupying the university's main administrative building and camping out in tents across Harvard Yard.

In endorsing a report on campus wages issued last month by the school's special living-wage committee, Summers said he would direct university lawyers to negotiate a salary increase for nearly 1,000 Harvard employees who earn less than $10.68 an hour, the living wage set last year by the city of Cambridge. The lowest-level campus employees, he said, should earn between $10.83 and $11.30 an hour.

Instead of permanently pegging Harvard wages to the city's cost of living, Summers said he agreed with the report's recommendation that the university establish a ''parity wage policy'' that would guarantee contract employees the same minimum wage as union members. As of Sept. 1, contract employees accounted for more than 60 percent of those earning less than Cambridge's living wage, and their low pay was a major focus of last year's protests.

''The proposals of the committee, once implemented, will improve materially compensation for lower-wage service workers at Harvard - and break new ground in defining the relationship between employees and contracted workers doing similar jobs,'' Summers said in a five-page statement announcing his decision.

The students who occupied Massachusetts Hall last spring acknowledged that the president's move would help workers, but said he did not go far enough. They contend he snubbed several of the committee's recommendations. And because Harvard's wage increase is a one-time raise that they say falls below the minimum $14 hourly wages offered by MIT, Boston University, and Wellesley College, they vowed more campus protests as early as Saturday, when students plan to release a film about the sit-in.

Missing from Summers's announcement yesterday, students said in a statement, was the ''fair bargaining'' clause of the parity wage plan, which they said would prevent future erosion of workers' wages. They also said the president avoided adopting a recommendation that would prevent the university from blocking employees from joining unions.

''Today, Larry Summers has shown not only that he is not going forward but that he is taking a few steps back,'' said Arin Dube, an economics graduate student who spent part of last spring in Massachusetts Hall. ''The recommendations that he has accepted will no doubt improve the lives of workers on campus, but equally important, the policies he is not instituting will ensure that the struggle will continue.''

The president declined to comment on his decision.

Over the years, the wages of much of Harvard's 15,000-member workforce have not kept up with inflation. According to the report last month, the salaries of Harvard's low-wage employees - mostly janitors, security guards, and parking attendants - saw a 10 to 15 percent drop between 1994 and 2001, when adjusted for inflation.

The committee blamed the wage decline on Harvard's practice of hiring lower-paid contract workers and using them as a negotiating tool to keep union wages down.

In his statement yesterday, Summers said he agreed with the majority on the committee, who held that the best way to prevent a decline in future wages was through ''parity,'' or keeping contract workers' wages even with those of union workers, rather than by establishing a wage floor.

''Such a [wage floor] plan addressed the symptoms and not the causes of the problem,'' Summers said in quoting the report.

A parity policy instead of a ''rigid policy'' of a wage floor, he said, ''will provide important protection for workers while ensuring flexibility for all parties in the face of changing economic circumstances.''

In addition to wages, Summers said the university intends to bolster education programs for workers, and said Harvard has hired an outside firm to assess the affordability of the health plan it allows lower-paid workers to buy into. Members of the committee yesterday said they hope the university ultimately improves its benefits program.

''It wasn't a charge of my committee, but I hope the university goes further in providing health benefits,'' said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor who chaired the special living-wage committee. ''This is an issue for some of the lowest-paid employees. The university might consider lowering the co-pay for those workers during collective bargaining.''

Some student complaints about the president's announcement may be resolved by April, when Summers said the university will have a complete parity wage and benefits policy. Harvard will publish the policy in May.

In the spring of 2003, Summers said, the university would issue the first annual report on how it is paying its workers.

''It is important to recognize that all who work at Harvard, regardless of rank or position, contribute in vital ways to the teaching and research mission of this great university,'' Summers said. ''It is essential that our employment policies and practices reflect this principle.''