April 19, 2001

Upping the living wage ante at Harvard

By JOHN NICHOLS, in The Nation (online)

"A sit-in has begun in Mass Hall for a living wage for all Harvard workers," declared Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement activist Amy C. Offner on Harvard Yard Wednesday afternoon.

As students held aloft a banner that read "Workers Can't Eat Prestige: Rally for a Living Wage," Offner explained to students, union activists and confused alumni in Cambridge for a reunion that the Harvard Living Wage Campaign's struggle to guarantee Harvard workers a living wage of at least $10.25 an hour had escalated to a dramatic new stage.

With support from actor Matt Damon, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, linguist Noam Chomsky, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, historian Howard Zinn and the Cambridge City Council -- which twice has passed resolutions calling on the university to implement a living wage policy -- the living wage campaign has over the past several years mounted one of the most ambitious campaigns in the nation for a living wage for campus employees.

But Harvard officials have stonewalled. So students moved their protests inside the walls of Massachusetts Hall, the building where Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine and other administrators make their offices.

Four dozen undergraduate and graduate students entered the building Wednesday afternoon with tanks of water and supplies of food, and vowed to remain until the administration agrees to the living-wage demand. A statement released by the students argued that the decision to occupy the hall came when it appeared that, after two years of dialogue, Harvard administrators remained unwilling to respond to the living-wage movement's demands.

"We are sitting in because we have exhausted every avenue of dialogue with the administration that could lead to a living wage," read a statement from the students. "Since March 1999, we have met repeatedly with administrators. We have asked to meet with the Harvard Corporation, the University's governing body, and have been refused. The meetings we did have uniformly consisted of administrative refusals to adopt or even consider a living wage policy."

In addition to seeking movement on the living-wage issue, the students want Harvard to join the Worker's Rights Consortium, an independent anti-sweatshop monitoring agency set up to review conditions in factories that produce clothing and other products that carry university logos.

As the students inside Mass Hall prepared -- under the watchful eyes of Harvard University Police Department officers -- for what the said they expected to be a long occupation, their allies outside distributed a statement that read in part:

"Today, over 1,000 Harvard workers are paid wages as low as $6.50 per hour without benefits. This is a wage that puts a parent with one child well below the federal poverty line, forcing many to work at least 90 hour weeks in order to support themselves. We insist that all direct and outsourced Harvard employees be paid a wage of at least $10.25/hr -- the same living wage paid by the City of Cambridge."

The Harvard protest is the latest by a growing movement of student activists across the country -- many of them veterans of the United Students Against Sweatshops and anti-corporate globalization movements -- who have turned their activism toward improving the wages of workers on the campuses where they study. Working with unions in campus towns across the country, they have sparked a push by the decade-old living wage movement to expand its focus from municipalities to the academy.

Emphasizing the town-and-gown connection, the Harvard activists noted in their statement that, "We are sitting in because Harvard's wage and benefit policies threaten the economic survival and violate the dignity of university workers, and our community overwhelmingly recognizes this fact. Every campus union, 30 students groups, all 8 Harvard unions, over 150 Harvard faculty members, over 2000 students, and over 100 alumni/ae have endorsed the campaign. Support for a living wage at Harvard extends far beyond the university's gates: dozens of community, religious, and labor organizations have endorsed the Campaign or taken part in demonstrations."