April 19, 2001

Harvard Students Stage Sit-In Say They'll Remain Until Campus Staff Are Given Raises

By DAVID ABEL, Boston Globe

They locked arms and chanted, "Hey, Harvard, you've got cash, why do you pay your workers like trash?"

Yesterday, about 50 Harvard students barged into Masschusetts Hall, where the university's president and provost work, and refused to leave until they got a promise of a "living wage" for all Harvard employees.

The sit-in, which marked one of the first times Harvard students have occupied the campus's main administration building since the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, began after months of pleas. Students had pleaded with the university to pay nearly 1,000 of its employees enough to live in Cambridge.

"It's really unconscionable for the wealthiest university in the world to pay so many of its employees so poorly," said Aaron Bartley, 25, a law student who spoke on a cell phone from the protest site, as Bob Marley blared in the background. "This was anything but a rash move. Our only recourse left has been civil disobedience."

Although university officials said they do not plan to force the students to leave, they said Harvard pays its employees fairly and pointed out that only 400 of 13,000 university workers make less than $10 an hour.

The students said that $10.25 an hour is the minimum "living wage" in Cambridge, and that the head of a household must make at least a dollar more than that to care for a family.

In a statement, a university spokesman, Joe Wrinn, said that a high-level Harvard committee had spent a year studying the issue, and that in the end it opted against setting a fixed wage. Instead, the university launched programs to improve employees' job skills, boost literacy, and expand some health benefits.

"We will not be adopting a living wage," Wrinn said."We will stick to collective bargaining. We believe the decision has been made, and they just obviously disagree."

The students, however, say the university is avoiding the issue by adding perks that many employees don't have time to take advantage of. They cite findings in studies, such as one by the National Low-Income Housing Commission, that a wage of at least $15 an hour is necessary for a family to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Boston area.

To the students, the most effective way to help low-income employees seems simple: beef up the salaries.

"Does Harvard really think this is an adequate response to an employee who works 80 hours a week to pay rent and put food on the table?" Bartley said after the university released its report last May.

For now, the student protesters are digging in. With food, sleeping bags, and cell phones, they say they are ready to stay as long as necessary.

"The university is encouraging a social crisis on campus," protester Jane Martin said in a news release faxed to the Globe yesterday afternoon. "They refused to listen to our petitions or the voices of Harvard workers. We can't stand by and let this happen."