April 21, 2001

Harvard students turn up pressure in fourth day of living wage protest

By GREG SUKIENNIK, Associated Press Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Harvard students demonstrating for a "living wage" for university employees have gained another high-profile supporter.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, speaking to more than 100 protesters at a Saturday afternoon rally in Harvard Yard, expressed support for students occupying administrative offices at Massachusetts Hall.

Students are pushing for a minimum "living wage" of $10.25 an hour for Harvard's blue-collar workers, the same minimum wage the City of Cambridge pays its employees. Students, who have campaigned since 1999 for a living wage for employees, say some subcontracted workers make as little as $6.50 an hour.

"I express my strong support for what Harvard students are doing here today and yesterday," Reich said. "The notion of the working poor ought to be an oxymoron in America."

Reich headed the Labor Department during Clinton's first term in office. After leaving the administration, he criticized Clinton for compromising too much and doing too little to solve problems like health care and income inequality.

While stressing he does not presume to tell Harvard how it should run its affairs, Reich, who teaches at Brandeis University, called the protesters the "moral conscience of this community."

Activists say wages paid to janitors, food service workers and other employees of the University and its subcontractors leave between 1,000 and 2,000 of workers in poverty.

The University says that number is actually about 400 workers, and has pledged to offer education benefits to workers making less than $10.25 an hour. Harvard says it agrees with the students on principle - but disagrees on how to remedy the situation.

"Where we disagree is the solution," spokesman Joe Wrinn said. "We believe it should be resolved in collective bargaining agreements with unions."

On Friday, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy also voiced support for the students. Dozens have occupied the building since Wednesday. Supporters have also set up a "tent city" in Harvard Yard.

The students are refusing to leave until top Harvard officials, including president Neil Rudenstine, negotiate with students.

"We're going to make sure they do," said Amy Offner, a student organizer.

Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn said there has been dialogue on the issues, but that it won't resume as long as students are occupying the building.

Fatma Marouf, 24, a second-year law student, said Harvard must treat blue-collar workers as "an integral part of Harvard, not a distant relative."

"They need to listen to workers' voices," she said.

Ed Childs, the president of a union representing food service workers at Harvard, scoffed at the University's offer of free English classes for employees making less than the living wage students have demanded.

"We don't want your education. We can educate ourselves," he said. "Their English is 'Yes, boss.' Our English is 'United we stand, divided we fall."'

Saturday's rally differed from earlier shows of support by tying the living wage issue at Harvard to protests surrounding the Free Trade Area of the Americas at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.