April 25, 2001
By CAREY GOLDBERG, The New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 24 -- The grand old elms are budding in Harvard Yard these fine spring days; the grass is sprouting, and the students are chanting: "Come on, Harvard, you've got cash! Why do you pay your workers trash?"
For seven days now, about 40 students have been occupying the first floor of Massachusetts Hall, where the university president, Neil L. Rudenstine, has his office. Their sit-in, believed to be the longest student occupation ever of a Harvard building, is supported by dozens more protesters outside, some camping in two dozen tents that have sprouted even faster than the grass.
The protesters are demanding that Harvard pay its workers a minimum "living wage" of $10.25 an hour, and have vowed not to budge until the university's position does.
That does not appear likely to happen soon. A statement by Mr. Rudenstine, printed in The Harvard Crimson today, said the students had a right to express their views but not to occupy a university building.
The administration will talk with them, he said, "once an environment of genuinely free discussion has been restored." Read: the administration will not negotiate with the sitters-in until they leave the building.
Asked if the students might be arrested soon, a Harvard spokesman, Joe Wrinn, said: "There are no plans at this time. It's day by day. And again, as we have kept saying, the students have been heard on this issue, and they just didn't like the outcome of the decision."
As that stalemate continues, the protesters are trying to bring added pressure to bear from a variety of quarters. They have received public support from both senators from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, both Democrats, and more than 100 faculty members.
The City of Cambridge, too, is backing the protesters. On Monday night, the City Council passed the latest of several resolutions calling on Harvard to pay its workers more, and Mayor Anthony Galluccio visited the Yard to express support. Mr. Rudenstine is a nice guy, he said, and nice guys should support a living wage.
The police are not allowing outsiders into Massachusetts Hall, but judging by what can be seen through the windows, the sit-in students seem to be bearing up under the vicissitudes of sharing just one restroom -- and no shower -- among about 40 people. When they first entered, they plastered the hallway they inhabit with posters, including one that read, "Why is there poverty at the world's richest university?" Food is allowed into the building but nothing else; it would be nice to have some changes of clothing, one protester said.
Otherwise, however, they are well connected with the outside world, communicating copiously by cell phone and the Internet or hanging out the building's windows like Molly Goldberg-style tenement residents to broadcast their views.
The Harvard police who are handling the protesters have generally been friendly, even sometimes jolly -- a powerful contrast to the Vietnam-era violence between the police and student protesters who occupied University Hall here in April 1969.
But that was a generation ago. (One undergraduate protester said his father had been among the students outside the building back then.) The current protest is part of a much different wave of dissent, a mix of union organization and student groups running "living wage" campaigns around the country.
Here at Harvard, the campaign has been on for more than two years, to little avail. The administration formed a committee to examine the issue, and ended up deciding it would be better to offer education, training and benefits to workers than to offer them higher wages.
Out of 13,000 workers, about 400 employees at Harvard, mainly janitors, dining hall workers and security guards, earn less than $10.25 an hour; several hundred more employees who work for subcontractors or are temporary workers also fall below that line. Some workers earn less than $7 an hour.
It is not new for privileged students at fancy universities to feel uncomfortable about low salaries of their kitchen workers and guards. What is new, said Aaron Bartley, a protester, is that income disparities have been getting worse, and that Harvard has increased its use of outside subcontractors.
"Nationally, and here, students are becoming more familiar with labor issues," Mr. Bartley said.
One Harvard janitor, who would not allow his name to be used, said he appreciated the nonviolent tactics of the student protest; he has been working two full-time jobs for many years, he said, and has gotten used to sleeping just four hours a night.
But, he said, "I hope they're in it for the long haul." They might need to be, he said, adding, "You know Harvard."