May 3, 2001

Harvard workers say they're grateful - though sometimes quietly

By JUSTIN POPE, Associated Press Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- On weekdays, Gregory Casseus arrives at his job as a Harvard University custodian at 7 a.m. and leaves eight hours later. Most nights, he then goes to a Boston hotel, where he works the evening shift doing laundry.

"God gives me energy," Casseus said.

Some Harvard students think Casseus shouldn't have to try to so hard to make ends meet.

For more than two weeks, at least 30 students have occupied Harvard's main administration building to draw attention to the needs of workers like Casseus, even though the students themselves seem to be getting more of the spotlight.

"I think that perception gets created because we're in a building," said Aaron Bartley, one of the students demanding a wage of at least $10.25 an hour for the university's blue-collar workers. "We have workers all day coming up to us, thanking us, congratulating us for standing in solidarity."

Among those who have stopped by are Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D.-Mass., AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Casseus, 45, makes $9.65 an hour and lives in a small, studio apartment in Boston. He says he can't remember the last time he had a day off.

The school and the protesters disagree sharply over how many workers earn less than the so-called living wage.

Harvard says only about 400 of Harvard's 13,500 regular employees make less than $10 per hour, and that only seven employees make the lowest wage paid to any employee: $8.05 per hour.

But students say that if workers hired by outside contractors - such as security guards - are included, as many as 2,000 make less than the living wage.

Last year, a university committee recommended job training and education for workers, rather than a wage increase that would circumvent union contracts.

President Neil Rudenstine says students have a right to disagree with the university's decision, but not to impose their will. He agreed to set up a faculty committee to study the issue, but said he won't negotiate while the building is occupied.

"(It) is not their right to occupy a university building, to interfere with the conduct of work inside it, and to disrupt the lives of nearby student residents, in an effort to force a different decision," he said in a recent statement.

Workers have been less conspicuous than students and even outside union members at some recent rallies, though janitors at the Harvard Medical School held their own rally Thursday in Boston.

Some blue-collar workers have said they're nervous about being too outspoken, and others have said they're simply too busy working.

But in interviews with more than a dozen Harvard blue-collar workers Thursday, all said they were grateful for the students' efforts.

Joe Murphy, a custodial supervisor at the medical school rally in Boston, said even his $12.62 is barely enough to live on.

"That's just wrong," he said. "Grocery stores go up. Clothing stores go up. Rent goes up."

Jean Phane, a janitor at the medical school campus in Boston, said workers there are drawing inspiration from the students on the main campus in nearby Cambridge.

"It's what they're doing that encourages us to come out here and do what we're doing," said Phane, who said he makes $9.40 an hour at Harvard and works 15 extra hours per week at United Parcel Service.

On Wednesday, nearly 200 dining hall workers whose contract expires June 19 unanimously voted to authorize a strike if their demands aren't met in a new contract.

Dan O'Connell, a Harvard custodian of 25 years who left school after ninth grade to care for his family, says he's taken advantage of Harvard's education programs and is currently taking a computer class. Previously, he's taken a number of astronomy courses and boasts he's met three Nobel Prize winners.

"I've read enough to have four or five degrees by now," he said.

O'Connell says he loves working for the university and "can understand economically where Harvard is coming from." He also says workers bear some responsibility to better themselves and find better jobs.

But O'Connell, who makes $11.75 an hour and worked a second job as a truck driver for 15 years, says money is a concern, especially for younger workers.

"It pays the bills, that's about it," he says. "But you can't get anywhere with it. You're not going to put away a couple thousand dollars for retirement."

Despite the education he's given himself, another job isn't an option, he says.

"I'm 59. What the hell am I going to do?"