April 30, 2001

Harvard students protest workers' wages


CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts -- After more than a week occupying Massachusetts Hall at Harvard University, students continued Saturday to demand higher wages for the school's custodians, cooks and other workers.

More than 1,000 workers on the campus are paid no more than $10 an hour, some as little as $6.50, and have no medical benefits, said Amy Offner, a senior participating in the protest.

Many work 90 hours per week, she said. "That's unacceptable." She and other students are demanding the school pay a "livable wage" of at least $10.25 per hour, including medical benefits.

Frank, a custodian who asked that his last name not be revealed, said his $10 per hour wage translates into $309 weekly, after deductions. "That's not enough to do it," said the single man who attended college for two years.

For his co-workers with children, "It's even tougher for them to make ends meet."

University spokesman Joe Wrinn said that union negotiations set the level of compensation, that the school paid competitive wages and that it offered its workers access to affordable housing programs and the opportunity to take courses during the work day.

But Frank said the classes were not available to everyone.

"As a practical matter," he said, "if you're doing anything -- including trying to get the education -- that interferes with the work day. They're pretty quick to let you know it. The job comes first."

Offner dismissed the university's offer of classes, such as those that teach English as a second language. "What they're saying is ludicrous," she said. "Everyone supports ESL classes, but they don't pay the rent."

And Offner said the vast majority of the workers, like Frank, are not represented by unions. "Most are subcontracted or contingent labor." Harvard, which has a $19 billion endowment, "gives them as little as they can get away with," she said.

The school is considering academic punishment for students who opt to continue their sit-ins on the ground floor of the building and miss final exams, said Wrinn. "We hope it will be over by then, before we have to make those types of permanent decisions."

"These questions of punishment and are we taking our final exams are really pretty irrelevant," said Offner. "All of us at Harvard are serious students and we're at Harvard because we want a good education, but we are also members of this community and we're citizens and we're people who think justice is important and we think that it's all right to take a week of our lives and work for something."

Though he believes the wages "are at or above the scale for these types of jobs," Wrinn said the president has offered to "put all aspects of wages, benefits and compensation on the table to discuss further. We only ask that the students leave the building to do that."

Students have been in the building, which houses the offices of the school's top administrators, since April 18.