May 2, 2001

To Yes At Harvard

By The Boston Globe Editorial Staff

Both Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine and the students who now occupy a university administration building need to move off their current positions to reach common ground. The students are demanding a $10.25 per hour " living wage" for custodians, cooks, and all laborers on campus. Rudenstine says he wants to improve the lives of Harvard workers, but he views the takeover as coercion, a violation of academic values.

Luckily, there is no intense, personal antagonism between the sides. That means that a capable negotiator could help the parties reach a principled resolution. There are plenty of dispute resolution experts at Harvard, MIT, and UMass-Boston; the Harvard Law School office of "Getting to Yes" author Roger Fisher is only a short walk from the occupied building. The sides should look into using a professional.

Rudenstine is losing the public relations battle, badly. So it would be sensible for him to make the first move. He worries too much about making specific concessions while the students remain in Massachusetts Hall. The living wage protesters are not hotheads intent on forcing a university to its knees. Instead, the protesters want to elevate labor practices at Harvard, a goal that the administration says it shares. Rudenstine would not create a dangerous or irreversible precedent by offering the protesters something specific.

In a work force that exceeds 13,000, there are roughly 400 Harvard employees who earn less than $10.25 per hour. Most are part-time custodians, members of SEIU Local 254. Harvard's current contract with the union runs deep into 2002, but administrators and union officials could renegotiate that contract right now. An offer from Rudenstine to reopen the contract, with an eye toward establishing a $10.25 wage floor for all employees of Harvard, would be a strong gesture.

Faced with such an offer, students would do well to leave Massachusetts Hall and pass the baton to labor negotiators. Some students and labor backers will demand the $10.25 wage floor for all employees working for contractors and subcontractors at Harvard. But that goal requires more extensive planning, given the wide range of labor practices and bargaining agreements that now exist between the different schools and two dozen outside providers of service workers.

The university has shown good faith by addressing contracting issues through its faculty and university forums. Last year, the work of a faculty committee led to generous, university-sponsored training and education programs, including English-as-a-second-language and computer literacy courses, for contract employees. Because of this history, the students should be ready to show flexibility in reponse to a substantive offer from Rudenstine.

There are too many shared interests on this campus to continue this standoff.