May 5, 2001

Harvard workers say they're grateful for protests

By JUSTIN POPE, Associated Press Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Jean Phane makes $9.40 an hour as a janitor at Harvard University's medical school, and he puts in an extra 15 hours a week at United Parcel Service to make ends meet.

Some Harvard students don't think Phane should be burdened with such a workload to make up for his low wages.

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 Phane, even though the students themselves seem to be getting more of the spotlight.

"It's what they're doing that encourages us to come out here and do what we're doing," said Phane.

Students are demanding a wage of at least $10.25 an hour for the university's blue-collar workers. 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 the university'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.

Students say their unity is appreciated by the workers, although much of the attention has focused on the protest.

"I think that perception gets created because we're in a building," said student Aaron Bartley. "We have workers all day coming up to us, thanking us, congratulating us for standing in solidarity."

Workers were less conspicuous than students throughout most of the protest, though janitors at the 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 rally, 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."

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.

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 said. "But you can't get anywhere with it. You're not going to put away a couple thousand dollars for retirement."