April 24, 2001

Good Wage Hunting

By MATTHEW DANIELS, The New Republic (Online)

We've reached hour 106 inside Mass. Hall. Except for a couple of cops stationed at exits and our night sentries at bathroom and office doors, everyone is sprawled across the same hardwood floors where Washington's troops slept. Yoga sessions relieve stiff backs from fitful nights. The smell (is it food? is it me?) can no longer be ignored, and some of us have taken to sponge-bathing and washing our hair in the sink. Morale, however, is soaring. Ted Kennedy's surprise appearance at Friday's sit-in--too brief, unfortunately, for cameras to arrive--has opened the floodgate for other endorsements: the AFL-CIO, Noam Chomsky, the Harvard Black Students Association, the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Not too shabby for an illegal action.

We're sitting in to secure, once and for all, a living wage for Harvard's workers. Many of the employees who serve food, clean bathrooms, and stand guard at the world's richest university work 80 or more hours a week but struggle to support their families. Liberal estimates suggest that for Harvard to implement a wage of $10.25 per hour, plus benefits, for all its workers, would cost the university $10 million--less than one-half of one percent of its annual budget, a fraction even of last fiscal year's $120 million operating surplus. For nearly three years the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) has taken the issue to the administration; now we're not leaving.

Massachusetts Hall is the administrative building where Harvard President Neil Rudenstine and Provost Harvey Fineberg usually work. But business as usual ended Wednesday around 1:30 p.m., when about 50 students (accompanied by labor economist Elaine Bernard and philosopher Robert Paul Wolff) stormed the doors, linked arms, and shook the offices with chants of What do we want? A living wage. When do we want it? Now! After some initial confrontations with the police--who have otherwise shown themselves to be very sympathetic--our territory has been secured. Cops posted both inside and out will allow us to leave unmolested, but not to return. We've settled in for the long haul.

Nobody had talked much about what we'd do after securing the building. Day one drove in the dual realizations that travel Scrabble was not enough to buoy our spirits, and that the team outside had their hands full just covering our asses. We needed to get down to work. Today the occupied conference room and Treasurer's office bustle like campaign war rooms. Clean-cut youths networking on cell phones and e-mailing furiously from laptops connected to university data jacks (which one by one are being squeezed off) alert every media outlet. We letter "LivingWageNow.com" signs on butcher paper. We catnap. Sisterhood Is Powerful circulates.

Each of us came in with enough to feed ourselves for a week. But when support flooded through the doors--dinners from HERE (the dining workers' union), breakfast from the Clerical and Technical Workers, and dessert from friends and well-wishers--it became clear the University did not intend to starve us out. "We want to make sure they're comfortable," Associate Dean Illingworth oozed. But that's all that's allowed in.

Survival assured, a more pressing long-term concern now is classwork. Academic responsibilities weigh heavier on some than others, but we are, after all, students. I'll have to reschedule my seminar presentation from this Wednesday to, well, who knows. The breadth of faculty support has helped alleviate the burden. My thesis advisor showed up to picket and to say, undoubtedly for the first time, he was proud of me.

Wednesday's action is the culmination of over two and a half years of canvassing, organizing, rallying, and education by the Progressive Student Labor Movement. Cambridge City Council passed a resolution in 1999 setting $10.25 an hour (adjusted for inflation, plus benefits) as the minimum wage required for a resident to meet basic needs. Harvard, however, pays many of its workers as little as $8-$10 an hour--substantially less than schools with smaller endowments, like Boston University and Northeastern, which pay janitors $15 an hour. Attempts to open the issue with key administrators met with stonewalling, foot-dragging, and misinformation. Harvard has claimed all along, and reiterated Thursday in its press statement, that only 400 of its workers earn less than $10.25/hr. But this figure neglects subcontracted and casual laborers who fare far worse--in all, well over 1,000 fall below the cut.

In May 1999, at PSLM's prompting, the administration released a report recommending economic mobility packages--minor additions to fringe benefits for employees and an expanded literacy program. The measures were adopted last May, but only 19 workers have seen increased benefits because unions weren't notified for another six months. Though the report also called for an end to the use of subcontracting as a cost-cutting measure, it provided for no enforcement mechanisms. Indeed, outsourcing and reclassifying have accelerated. Just two weeks ago Rudenstine closed dialogue on the matter, claiming it would be too "time consuming" to investigate the matter before his replacement in July by ex-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Time had come to escalate.

This is not our fathers' sit-in. The University Hall takeover of '69 relied on the threat of violence to make its point. A more dangerous threat to those in power today is exposure. PSLM has cultivated endorsements from eminent faculty, celebrities, and all-important alumni donors, which both reflect the breadth of community support and draw new activists into the fold. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two headliners of PSLM's first rally last May, can do wonders for turnout (and they don't hurt morale, either--they've already phoned in their support). On a campus where student apathy is the most reliable force, support has improbably begun to snowball.

Scores of supporters have begun sleeping outside. A tent city sprawling across the freshly seeded Yard hits fair Harvard where it hurts most: pre-commencement lawn care. Some tie-and-blazer-clad freshman residents of Mass. Hall staged a brief "counter-protest" after the first night's chanting, but they've been the only ones to complain about the "circus atmosphere" drawing bigger crowds to each successive rally. Janitors from Service Employees International Union local 254 march in formation as they hold their reorganization meeting out front. Between speeches, guitarists lead us in "If I Had a Hammer"; an editor of the campus liberal monthly eats fire; a string quartet earnestly saws away at the theme to "MacGyver."

Hanging out the windows to chant along, we see new faces joining the picket lines. Although well-wishers are kept behind the grassy perimeter, Kennedy stepped across to shake outstretched hands. The only visitors have been the masters of Harvard's residential houses, styling themselves as mediators. Their presence suggests the administration knows the same thing we do: a living wage for all the University's workers is not just affordable and a moral imperative--it is far more popular than anyone could have suspected.

Matthew Daniels is a Harvard senior and PSLM member.