April 26, 2001

US and CANADA: Harvard students defiant in wage protest

By VICTORIA GRIFFITH, The Financial Times (London)

BOSTON -- Harvard students continued their occupation of the university president's office yesterday over demands that the administration agree to pay its workers an hourly "living wage" of Dollars 10.25.

The university is hoping the protest, which began last week, will fade as the academic year comes to a close. "Exam time is coming up," says spokesman Joe Wrinn.

The protesters have received verbal support from Massachusetts senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. Harvard's administration refuses to negotiate with the demonstrators until they vacate the building.

The living-wage campaign at Harvard began three years ago after students began to question the earnings of the university's cleaning staff.

About 400 workers earn under Dollars 10.25 per hour, many around Dollars 8. Those working at Harvard through third-party contractors often make less. The federal US minimum wage is Dollars 5.50 per hour, far too low in high-cost areas like Boston, say demonstrators. Activists point out that the university's endowments reached Dollars 19bn last year.

In response to student demands, the university has initiated a free education programme for its employees, providing education in English as a second language, and basic computer and literacy training.

About 200 workers are enrolled in the initiative, which pays employees for the time they spend in class.

Harvard students complain the programme does not reach third-party workers, who account for a rising portion of the university's janitorial staff. The administration is negotiating to bring subcontractors' employees into the initiative.

Living-wage campaigns are growing around the US, as hourly salaries for the worst-paid workers fail to match cost-of-living increases.

The national "Justice for Janitors" campaign has staged walk-outs and hunger strikes around the country to win pay increases for cleaning staff.

A number of city governments - including Harvard's hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts - are attempting to enforce legislation requiring all local employers to pay workers more than the national minimum wage.