April 23, 2001

Sit-In Turns Into Live-In Over Wages At Harvard


They have washed their hair in the office bathroom sink and tapped out final papers on laptops they had the foresight to bring. One graduate student taught a class through an open window of the Harvard University building. And they have slept on the floor, avoiding the furniture ("We have been told it is antique," one student said).

For the fifth day in a row yesterday, 40 students remained holed up in the office of Harvard University's president demanding that the institution pay its janitors, librarians, and other workers a "living wage" of at least $10.25 per hour.

In addition, hundreds rallied outside the building throughout the weekend near a makeshift tent city erected in Harvard Yard. A who's who of liberal local politicians have passed by to show support, and national AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and the Massachusetts Democratic Party have faxed letters of endorsement, students said.

"That just shows how unreasonable refusals to negotiate are," said Madeleine Elfenbein, who has camped in the building since Wednesday. "We think the living wage issue is a very simple matter of economic justice."

But university officials insist Harvard already pays employees fairly and gives good benefits. An ad hoc committee studied the issue for more than a year and opted to expand such benefits as health care, but not to raise salaries.

"We believe the decision has been made," Joe Wrinn, a university spokesman, said in a statement earlier this week. "We will not be adopting a living wage."

He said 400 of Harvard's workers earn less than $10 an hour.

But students, who called the sit-in the culmination of more than two years of failed negotiations, said that more than 1,000 workers earn less than the $10.25 per hour that the city of Cambridge deemed a "living wage" for its employees in a 1999 ordinance.

Harvard doesn't count those workers because they are hired through subcontractors, Elfenbein said.

Students are also demanding that Harvard decrease the number of workers it hires through subcontractors, a practice that students say allows the university to avoid paying good benefits.

While some union members earn a wage of $12 to $16 an hour, workers who are hired through subcontractors earn $8 to $10 an hour, said Edward Childs, a cook in a Harvard dining hall who is chief steward of Local 26, a union for restaurant employees.

Aaron Bartley, a third-year law student, said the living wage issue at Harvard is relevant to the "resurgence of activism" evident in the Quebec protests at the Summit of the Americas, where Western Hemisphere leaders were forging a hemispheric free-trade zone.

But Bartley also said the Harvard issue is local and unique.

"This is an enormously wealthy institution, with people in our own dorms and in our kitchens often living in poverty," he said.

Yesterday, tourists strolling through the university to snap pictures of the John Harvard statue walked over chalk signs declaring "living wage now" and past cartoon drawings that portrayed Harvard's incoming president Lawrence Summers as Marie Antoinette saying, "Let them eat cake."

On Saturday, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy attempted to visit the barricaded students, but he was prevented by police. Yesterday, religious supporters of the cause turned out for a Protestant service and a Catholic Mass.

University officials have not forcibly ejected the students from the building, and outgoing Harvard president Neil Rudenstine ignored them on Wednesday when they set up camp, students said.

Meanwhile, food has been no problem, students said. Dining hall union workers and members of the clerical union have brought them dinner and coffee.

"There's an electricity that's going on around the dining halls, of hope that we can win a decent contract and get a living wage for all our members," Childs said.