April 20, 2001

AFL-CIO, Sen. Kennedy endorse living wage protest at Harvard

By HEIDI B. PERLMAN, Associated Press Writer

BOSTON -- Harvard students demanding a pay raise for some university employees got a boost Friday when two powerful forces endorsed their cause: a top labor leader and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

The AFL-CIO issued a statement endorsing the cause and Kennedy made a surprise appearance at the administrative building that has been occupied by students since Wednesday.

Organizers, who said they had five minutes' notice of Kennedy's arrival, said Massachusetts' senior senator encouraged the activists and supported their demand that Harvard pay its employees a "living wage" of at least $10.25 an hour.

Kennedy - a 1956 Harvard graduate - pledged to call outgoing Harvard President Neil Rudenstine "to urge him to settle," Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said.

"His real concern is about fundamental fairness and the preservation of human dignity," Manley said. "He doesn't feel that someone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year deserves to live in poverty."

Kennedy's presence was a boost to students who have been putting increasing pressure on the university to increase wages for its blue-collar workers.

About 50 students began a sit-in Wednesday inside Massachusetts Hall, which houses the office of the university president. Rudenstine is set to step down in June and is to be succeeded by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers.

By Friday, 45 were still inside, and nearly 100 had gathered outside the building. Students planned to erect a tent city in the courtyard later in the day and continue their vigil through the weekend.

"It was really an exciting moment," said Aaron Bartley, a third-year law student at Harvard. "I've been inside the building since the occupation began two days ago. We've had a constant presence and are creating tremendous pressure to create action."

"I think it's clear from Kennedy to custodians that the current position is ridiculous," he said.

Earlier Friday, the AFL-CIO voiced its support.

"Harvard University is one of the wealthiest universities in the world," wrote AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "This institution can afford to make sure that the men and women who clean its classrooms, serve students food, care for its ground and touch every aspect of daily life at Harvard can support their families in dignity."

Sweeney also commended the students for their "courage and conviction" and praised them for "acting in the dual, time-honored traditions of student activism and nonviolent civil disobedience."

Students say they want the university to pay all its employees at least $10.25 an hour, the same minimum wage paid by the city of Cambridge.

But protesters say the school pays more than 1,000 of its direct and subcontracted employees as little as $6.50 an hour, while other Boston area universities pay people with similar duties up to $14 an hour.

"We're going to stay here as long as we need to," said Paul Lekas, a first-year law student from Detroit. "The university is still refusing to negotiate. We hope this will get their attention."

But Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn said there is little left to discuss regarding the wage issue. Last year, after a 12-month study of employee salaries, Harvard officials decided to offer free GED and English as a Second Language courses - instead of increased wages - to the lowest-paid workers to train them for higher-paid positions, he said.

There are currently about 400 people working on campus - mainly custodians and cafeteria workers - who earn less than $10 an hour, he said. All are union members who have agreed to the wage, he said.

University officials are happy to discuss the issue with students, but not until they end the protest, he said.

"We believe we've had a reasoned dialogue and have explored this issue fully," Wrinn said. "We'll continue to talk about it, but not as long as our building is occupied."