May 4, 2001>

Student Teachers: The Democrats Have a Lot to Learn From the Harvard Students' Living Wage Campaign

By TOM LOWENSTEIN, The American Prospect (Web Feature)

After four months of post-election purgatory -- more than 100 days in which liberals have watched Democratic leaders weakly grumble as President Bush has handed the government over to corporations and sought to pay off their C.E.O.s with giant tax cuts -- real leadership has finally emerged on the left.

Who are these new leaders? A bunch of kids from, of all places, Harvard University. A little more than two weeks ago, they staged a sit-in in the University President's office (Massachusetts Hall) to support a drive for a living wage of $10.25 an hour for all Harvard employees. They're still in there, and the sweaty bunch has become a beacon for progressives around the country. The AFL-CIO's John Sweeney, Senator Ted Kennedy, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich have all visited them; Rage Against the Machine sent a letter of support; local and national TV and newspapers have taken note. Seemingly every day some new group stages a march or a rally on their behalf -- Harvard faculty, bicyclists for a living wage, Divinity School students, the janitor's union, the kitchen workers, the list goes on.

The students' logic about Harvard University is beautifully simple and applies just as easily to hundreds of thousands of people across the country: Why, when the University (and country) as a whole is richer than it's ever been, should any of its workers make less than a living wage? Why should Ted Kennedy have to battle Republicans with all the skill of his 38-years in the Senate to move the minimum wage up a dollar, when we all know that in most cities in this country $6.50 or $7.00 an hour cannot support an individual, let alone a family?

The students in Massachusetts Hall have found a way to take action, something that seems beyond the Democratic Party these days. The Harvard Administration was probably hoping these students would come across as radicals, as closer to the most outrageous of Quebec City than to the most thoughtful of Harvard Yard, but it hasn't happened. These kids roll their sleeping bags up every morning so the secretaries can work. They carefully dispose of trash and recycling. They even vacuum. They have taken action in pursuit of a just cause, and so people flock to them: Of even the anti-sit-in signs in Harvard Yard, many proclaim support for the living wage and oppose only the noise the tent city that has sprung up outside of Massachusetts Hall generates.

The University, so far, has had no real answer. (Likewise, the Republicans would have no real answer on the tax cut if anyone asked loudly enough.) First Harvard claimed that only 400 University workers make less than $10.25 (the amount set by the City of Cambridge as a living wage for its workers). Even without addressing the fact that this leaves out up to another 1,000 contract workers who make as little as $6.50, this argument only makes the University seem cheap. Hey, if it's so few and your endowment is $19 billion, couldn't you give them a raise? Then, in an e-mail, the administration discussed the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Practices, which met last year. These recommendations included job training and educational opportunities that the Administration claimed (inaccurately, the students say) had been implemented. This response begged the question: Even if those recommendations were implemented -- and everyone agrees job training and education are of vital importance -- how do they help someone making $7 an hour pay the rent? Wouldn't implementing job training without giving workers a raise be an admission that they would have to get a new job to get by?

Finally, the administration has been left with one stand: We won't cave in to these tactics. What tactics? Harvard surely teaches Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience. Wouldn't a world-class University want to teach its students that non-violent and non-destructive action in pursuit of fairness pays off? Furthermore, the University can't make a compelling case that the protestors are wrong. And if the protestors are right, why not do the right thing, which will also get them to leave?

In short, the official response to the protestors has been, well, Bushesque. They talk about respect -- they don't want to look bad -- but, in the end, they don't offer much by way of justice. Just as President Bush did in the wake of last fall's election, they are telling us all to be reasonable, to be respectful, and to trust in power to smooth over all difficulties.

Unfortunately for Harvard's bureaucrats, the students in Massachusetts Hall are reasonable and respectful, and have become a beacon for anyone in this country who is ashamed to see what power will do "in our best interests." They have put their grades -- in some cases their graduations -- and all the years of hard work that have led them to Harvard on the line these last two weeks. This seems a lot more important than the Senate seat some millionaire can't live without; in fact, it seems a lot more vital than anything an elected official in Washington has put on the line in the last four months.

No wonder the whole country is watching.