May 3, 2001

Student Sit-In Tests Harvard's Labor Policies, and Patience; Protest: Behind two-week siege is the demand for a 'living wage' for campus service workers

By ELIZABETH MEHREN, The Los Angeles Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Day 14 and counting:

With the midday temperature hitting 90 degrees Wednesday, 22-year-old Brent Zettel leaned out the window of the Harvard University administration building. Standing outside, his government professor inquired: "Got everything you need? Books? Class outlines? Deodorant?"

The longest sit-in in Harvard history reached the two-week mark Wednesday, with about three dozen students camped out in Massachusetts Hall to demand higher wages for university workers.

The students vow to continue their occupation until Harvard agrees to pay a " living wage" of $10.25 an hour to janitors, dining hall workers and others.

"There's a lot of people in our community that are suffering," Zettel said. "If we won't ask for this injustice to be fixed, we're complicit."

Noting that the university is the city's largest employer, protesters say as many as 2,000 Harvard employees, none of whom are full-time students, are paid what they call poverty wages. The university rejoins that the number of lower-wage service workers is closer to 400.

Harvard officials further insist that employee compensation packages are the product of collective bargaining and include benefits such as the right to attend certain university classes.

Zettel, a senior from Poway, Calif., said he is unimpressed by such arguments from an institution with a $19-billion endowment. He wonders if workers "holding down three jobs to support their families" really will avail themselves of free museum passes, another benefit the administration touts.

And so the standoff continues. City and campus police keep visitors about 3 feet back from the red-brick administration building, erected in 1720 at the nation's oldest university. Only boxes of food, medical supplies and essentials such as toothpaste and deodorant are allowed in. Any protester who leaves cannot reenter, and the group inside has shrunk from more than 50 students to its present size. Students inside are sleeping on the floor, just steps from Harvard President Neil Rudenstine's first-floor office, using bathroom sinks to shampoo their hair and wash up.

Directly in front of Massachusetts Hall, a tent city has sprung up in Harvard Yard. Sign-up sheets invite students to commit to periods when they will sleep in the tents. Salsa music blasts from huge speakers, making for a festive atmosphere. Giant banners hang from trees and buildings, including a poster listing prominent supporters such as actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich.

Protesters and university officials alike say they are surprised the demonstration has gone on so long. Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn said springtime protests are common on campus but that this one is unusual because students have taken over a building for so long. He said the school has no plans to force the students out.

"The last thing we want if we can do anything about it is to have our students harmed," said Wrinn, making a noontime check of the situation.

But momentum appears to be growing. Hundreds of faculty members have chorused support, and some have even moved classes to the lawn outside University Hall so protesters can take part.

The Web site of the Progressive Student Labor Movement is updated to show the days, hours and minutes of occupation, and lists daily activities associated with the protest. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is among union officials who have voiced support, although earlier in the week, a local labor group urged protesters to give up so negotiations could resume.

In Wednesday's evening rush hour, marchers supporting the sit-in disrupted Cambridge traffic with a parade down a city thoroughfare.

The protesters contend that many employees are paid as little as $7.50 per hour and that certain service workers earn $6.50 an hour. The university counters that the lowest wage paid to any regular Harvard employee is $8.05 per hour and that the salary package actually totals $10.63 an hour when benefits are considered.

"Harvard really has handled this poorly, and it got out of their control," said Amy Offner, a 21-year-old senior from Sudbury, Mass., one of about 100 students who have spent the last 2 1/2 years organizing the living wage campaign here.

Offner said the group--not affiliated with other living wage efforts around the country--did not start out with a plan to take over the building where Rudenstine has his office. With a loose coalition of students, university workers and some administration officials, protesters "tried to use every avenue possible" to sway Harvard, Offner said, "always with a single demand: $10.25 per hour."

For more than a year, a committee appointed by Rudenstine looked into the matter. Offner called that approach "a stalling tactic" and called its recently published summary "woefully inadequate."

Rudenstine, who is preparing to hand over the reins of Harvard in July to former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, issued his most recent statement on the protest April 26. Rudenstine requested that students leave the building "in order that we may resume conversations about the welfare of workers at Harvard in an environment of genuinely free and responsible conversation." He also described taking over a university building as "inconsistent with the fundamental principles of an academic community."

In a "message to students" sent by e-mail Wednesday, undergraduate Dean Harry R. Lewis expressed concern about security within Harvard Yard. Lewis also said some students living in dorms around the yard have complained about noise and disruption.

The school's "reading period"--10 days with no classes in advance of final exams--begins Saturday, and Lewis asked protesters to end their "noisy demonstrations" by then.

But senior Jane Martin, a 21-year-old from Cincinnati, leaned out a window of Massachusetts Hall to say she was prepared to hold ground "for as long as it takes." She said her professors have told her she can take incompletes and make her exams up later if she misses finals.

Anna Falicov, a 20-year-old junior from San Diego, said flunking out was the least of her concerns. The sit-in, she said, has been an educational experience.

"I've learned more about power and the way communities come together than I could have in a class," she said.