April 30, 2001

Labor leader joins Harvard living wage protest

By JUSTIN POPE, Associated Press Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pledged the support of the nation's largest labor organization for Harvard University students demanding a "living wage" for the university's blue collar workers.

Sweeney spoke Monday in front of Massachusetts Hall, the university administration building, which has occupied by a group of about 40 student protesters for nearly two weeks.

"We will stand with you until Harvard University agrees, agrees to pay a living wage to the workers who make this university work day after day," Sweeney told the crowd.

The students want custodians, cooks and other laborers at Harvard to make $10.25 an hour, the same minimum wage the city of Cambridge pays its employees. The university says it believes in fair wages but won't break collective bargaining agreements, and has refused to negotiate as long as the building is occupied.

Sweeney criticized Harvard, the world's richest university, for miserly treatment of its workers.

"There's no reason for this wealthy institution to pass along to its workers a burden of poverty," he said.

About 1,000 people attended Monday's rally, which organizers said was the best-attended so far during the 13-day protest and showed continued support for the cause. Marchers chanted, "Hey Harvard, you've got cash. Why do you pay your workers trash?"

But a poll in Monday's Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, found that while 53 percent of students support a $10.25 minimum wage, only 32 percent think the occupation of the administration building is justified. Only 23 percent of students, and 44 percent of those who support the higher wage, said they would support the wage hike if it meant a tuition increase.

On Friday, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine spoke with the protesters for the first time and said he would set up a faculty committee to explore "all aspects of wages compensation and benefits," according to university spokesman Joe Wrinn. But Wrinn said the university still will not negotiate with students as long as the building is occupied.

The protesters have said they won't leave the building until they receive a "substantial commitment" from Harvard to improve wages.

Wrinn said there are no plans to forcibly removed the students, though university officials have indicated protesters could face academic penalties as exam period approaches.

"The academic calendar is on the horizon, so the students obviously are going to face some pretty serious choices," Wrinn said.

Last year, a Harvard faculty commission recommended a job-training and education program for the workers but rejected the idea of a minimum wage floor that overrides union agreements.

The school is allowing in food, but university police are permitting only housemasters and some faculty to enter the building.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who visited four days into the takeover to show his support, sent a letter to the Harvard students saying he joined them "in spirit" at the rally.

"I am so proud of the Harvard students," wrote Kennedy. "You have stood up for a cause that is right and just. You have put your integrity on the line in the names of fairness and dignity for workers."

John Sullivan, a Harvard custodian attending Monday's rally, said workers appreciated the students' efforts.

"Good team spirit," he said. "It shows that they really care for us."