April 30, 2001

Harvard To Workers: Let Them Eat Culture - A Mother Reports on Her Daughter's Sitting-In for Living Wages

By ANDREE PAGES, at TomPaine.com

In 1976, as a financial aid student at Harvard University, I worked as a campus security guard for $5 an hour. Today, a quarter century later, Harvard pays over 1,000 contract workers as little as $6.50 an hour, without benefits, for that very job and others like it.

That is why my daughter and 45 other student protesters began on April 18th what is now known as the Harvard Living Wage Campaign Sit-In.

These members of the Progressive Students Labor Movement (PSLM) are camped out in Massachusetts Hall, where President Neil Rudenstine and other administrators have their offices. Students intend to remain in this building until Harvard agrees to grant a minimum living wage of $10.25 an hour plus benefits to all its workers, both "regular" Harvard employees and those subcontracted through outside agencies. (The $10.25 per hour figure is the lowest Cambridge pays its workers, assessed by the City Council as the minimum necessary to live in the city).

No spring fling by bored students, the sit-in is the culmination of a so-far fruitless three-year struggle with the administration by the PSLM to address the shameful wages paid many janitors, dining hall workers, and security guards.

Harvard is not only the largest employer in Cambridge and the fifth-largest in Massachusetts, but with an endowment of $19 billion, also the richest university on the planet.

Here's some background on the sit-in: in March 1999, after six months of stonewalling, President Rudenstine agreed to form an ad hoc committee to "review the living wage." His hand-picked committee had no worker, PSLM representative, or sympathetic faculty member on board.

In May 2000, the committee's report rejected implementation of any wage standard at Harvard. However, an expanded benefits package was recommended, with partial health benefits for a minority of workers and a literacy program for all. Free passes to Harvard museums constituted the other major leg of the program. Let them eat culture.

Not satisfied, the PSLM pressed on for a living wage. In October, they learned the university had not implemented even the modest benefits proposed by the committee. Workers had not been notified of their benefit eligibility, and some who had expressed interest in literacy classes had never been called back.

In November, PSLM was told by Associate Vice President for Human Resources Polly Price that, despite claims that she'd done it a month before, she had just that week sent notification of the then-six-month-old report to the unions representing dining hall workers, security guards, and janitors She admitted the literacy program was serving hundreds fewer workers than promised, and that none of the new benefits -- not even the museum passes! -- would accrue to subcontracted workers until their contracts were renewed, potentially several years into the future.

At the end of 2000, Harvard University, a nonprofit educational institution, celebrated its largest operating surplus ever: $120 million.

In early April, PSLM members met for the last time with President Rudenstine. He made it clear that for the administration, the living wage was a dead issue. This, although wages were still in place that kept roughly 1,500 workers at the federal poverty level; no dialogue about worker needs had been opened with workers themselves; and even the paltry benefits recommended by his hand-picked committee had not been implemented.

So, on April 18, at 1:24 p.m., implementing a last-ditch plan, 47 PSLM members grabbed their sleeping bags and food for a week and swarmed into Massachusetts Hall, cleverly making sure to secure access to a bathroom.

Since then a growing tent city in Harvard Yard has supported the Living Wagers, as well as hundreds of worker, student, faculty, and area resident protesters. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass., and holder of a B.A. from Harvard) and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich came early on to voice their support. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond also endorsed the Campaign. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis., and holder of a Harvard J.D.) and Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass., holder of Harvard J.D. and B.A. degrees) among others, have sent eloquent letters in support.

Nevertheless, the highlight for many of the protesters came on the evening of April 25, when over 700 of Harvard's unionized dining hall workers poured into Harvard Yard, swelling the sit-in's ranks before flowing out in one labor-slogan-chanting group onto Mass Ave., where they slowed traffic, much of it honking in support.

Meanwhile the PSLM remains, unbathed, untaught, and undaunted. And Harvard workers continue on wages that wouldn't support a student, never mind an independent adult or a family. (Ironically, while some contracted dining hall workers are paid $6.50 an hour, Harvard students given the same jobs start at $9.75 an hour).

I wonder why, despite a petition signed by over 2,000 students, and a letter signed by over 200 faculty members, the administration refused to grant a living wage plus benefits -- a move estimated to cost about $10 million.

I stew over the administration's fuzzy math: "only 400 Harvard workers" earn less than $10 an hour. (Harvard doesn't "count" the over 1,000 outsourced workers as Harvard workers, even though they work permanently at Harvard. Thus today there are only 18 unionized security guards from a union that was once 120 strong; guards' wages have fallen from roughly $12 to an average $8 an hour.)

"Our mission is education," Harvard spokesperson Joseph Wrinn explains, when asked why Harvard advocates literacy instead of a living wage. That Harvard's Board is stacked with executives from companies such as Taco Bell also provides another clue.

For further information, or to send an e-mail to the administration or the students, click here. The site is a testimonial to what really bright committed young people can do.

But of all the figures, narratives, administration letters, PSLM rebuttals, and newspaper links, to me, the comment of my daughter, PSLM member Madeleine Elfenbein, to the Boston Globe says it all: "We think the living wage is a very simple matter of economic justice."

Andree Pages is a writer and artist in New York City. She graduated from Harvard College in 1977.