May/June 2001

Fair Harvard?

By KATE JULIAN, Linguafranca

This July, Harvard University will witness an orderly and predictable transfer of power. President Neil Rudenstine—humanist and fundraiser extraordinaire—will step down, passing on his office to Lawrence Summers—economist and statesman of substance. But Harvard's carefully managed succession has been nearly overshadowed by events neither orderly nor predictable.

On April 18, fifty members of Harvard's Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) entered Massachusetts Hall, the administrative building housing the offices of Rudenstine and other administrators, to demand that university employees be paid a "living wage" of $10.25 per hour.

From the beginning, there were signs that this was an unusually organized action. The protesters brought laptops and cell phones. They had an extensive website detailing their two-and-a-half year campaign for a living wage at Harvard. They had consulted lawyers, prepared press packets, and collected a long list of endorsements.

And indeed the protesters attracted much support: Ted Kennedy, Robert Reich, and John Sweeney showed up and made impassioned speeches on their behalf. At mealtimes, campus workers passed food inside the building. Sympathetic students set up a tent city outside in Harvard Yard.

As the sit-in wore on, the debate over wages intensified. The administration insisted that it paid prevailing industry rates, that the students' tactics were coercive, and that furthermore, the university had already addressed their concerns by promising job-skills and literacy training to low-wage workers. The PSLM countered that literacy classes were of little immediate help to the one thousand to two thousand janitors, food service workers, and security guards making less than $10.25 per hour. Many of these workers, they said, hold down two full-time jobs. The protesters also claimed that recent outsourcing of jobs to subcontractors had sharply decreased wages while weakening the workers' unions. As for their tactics, they insisted they had exhausted all other means.

But while the administration held firm, faculty members displayed considerable support for the sit-in. On Day 5, Juliet Schor, chair of women's studies, and Marshall Ganz, lecturer at the Kennedy School, convened various colleagues, and the Faculty Committee for a Living Wage was born. Feelings ran high among those present. "At the beginning of the sit-in...President Rudenstine cancelled the [scheduled] faculty meeting, saying that there was essentially no university business—in the midst of this sit-in in a university hall!" said Timothy Patrick McCarthy of the history and literature department. "That really pissed off a lot of people on the faculty."

Within forty-eight hours, the committee had drafted a letter urging Rudenstine to reconsider the living wage. "We believe that if Harvard employees are not adequately compensated," the letter explained, "then the Harvard community as a whole should assume responsibility for correcting the situation." More than four hundred faculty members subsequently signed on, including many of Harvard's biggest names—among them Lawrence Tribe, Lani Guinier, Christopher Jencks, and Cornel West. Whole departments discussed the issue, and at least one, the social anthropology program, passed a unanimous resolution supporting the campaign.

Still, while faculty support was broad, it was not universal. Government professor Harvey Mansfield, who calls himself "one of the few conservatives at Harvard," told Lingua Franca that the students set a dangerous precedent. Law professor Charles Fried adds that while it is "appropriate that Harvard pay decent salaries," he found the protest "pure self-aggrandizing grandstanding." He also noted that the "people sitting in [were] not union members.... The university would actually be committing an unfair labor practice if it changed the wages of...the bargaining unit without consulting the bargaining unit first."

Meanwhile, the living wage is fast becoming a hot issue at other schools—there are now living wage campaigns on some fifteen campuses. This may indicate an overall shift in student activism. If the 1980s were marked by student efforts to compel divestment of holdings in South Africa, and the 1990s saw student struggles over issues of race and gender on campus—including affirmative action and ethnic and women's studies curricula—then recent activism reflects a newfound emphasis on labor issues. The last few years have seen campaigns to end sweatshop labor, protests over the effects of free trade and globalization on workers, the birth of the AFL-CIO's popular Union Summer student activist training program, graduate student unionization drives, and now, the living wage.

This spring, students at Princeton, Brown, and Cornell also demonstrated over worker compensation. If these schools seem an elite bunch, it may be no accident: The Harvard protesters frequently point to their school's vast $19 billion endowment—the largest of any university—and note that it has grown by $6 billion since their campaign began. They further maintain that a living wage would cost less than one half of 1 percent of the interest earned by the endowment annually.

The notion of sharing profits with workers cannot be foreign to former treasury secretary Summers, who is credited with pioneering work on labor markets and wage structures. Although Summers kept silent about the sit-in, protesters nonetheless waved cartoons portraying him as a latter-day Marie Antoinette, offering up cake to the needy ("Workers can't eat prestige," read another popular sign).

In the end, the president and the protesters reached an unstable compromise. On May 8—Day 21 of the sit-in—the twenty-seven remaining students left Massachusetts Hall. Rudenstine proclaimed their departure "a welcome development"; the protesters declared victory.

Although Harvard did not commit to a living wage, it did establish a new committee to consider the welfare of its low-wage employees. This committee, to be chaired by economics professor Lawrence Katz and composed of ten faculty members, three workers, four students, and two administrators, is charged with considering "the principled basis, desirability, and feasibility" of a living wage.

Additionally, the university announced a freeze on outsourcing, and agreed to negotiate a new contract ahead of schedule with the janitors' union.

But was this the end or the beginning? The same afternoon Harvard's sit-in ended, another began at the University of Connecticut. The students' demands? Increased wages for janitors and a halt to outsourcing.