May 6, 2001

At Harvard, Living Wage Meets the Ivy League

By BENJAMIN L. McKEAN, in The Los Angeles Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- After we had been sitting in the president's office for a week, the dining hall workers came. Exhausted from the most tense week of my life, I was sitting at a beautifully polished antique wood table, staring at the president's complete 20-volume collection of "The Tanner Lectures on Human Values" when I first heard them. Many dining hall workers had visited us before, but suddenly there were hundreds of them, roaring their support for those of us inside. In identical red sweatshirts that proclaimed 'Never Surrender," they surrounded the building, electrifying Harvard Yard. Many residents of the freshman dorms and of the tent city that had sprung up to support our sit-in poured out to join them, and soon more than 500 people had gathered together in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue at 10 p.m. to demand a living wage for all Harvard employees.

The 40 of us occupying Massachusetts Hall, which houses the offices of Harvard's president, provost and treasurer, could not join them there, of course, but neither could we have been happier to see them. Our sit-in is the culmination of a three-year organizing campaign for a living wage for all Harvard employees, and we are seeing the entire Harvard community come together to join in our demand. Our efforts began in fall 1998, as the city of Cambridge was considering a living wage ordinance much like the one Los Angeles had just passed. Cambridge's prices are exorbitant, and the service workers--janitors, security guards, food servers, clerical staff--employed by the city and its prestigious universities have trouble finding affordable places to live. Cambridge ultimately passed a living wage ordinance, which requires the city and its contractors to pay their employees $10.25 an hour, plus benefits.

Harvard's administrators declined to follow, although Harvard is both the biggest employer and biggest landowner in Cambridge. In fact, Harvard's administrators refused even to discuss the possibility at first. Some students new to campus, including myself, were struck by the shockingly low wages paid to some employees--then as little as $6.50 an hour. We asked to meet with President Neil Rudenstine to talk about this and were refused. We were not able to meet with him until long after we organized our first rally, which attracted more than 200 people. In the years since the campaign began, the administration of the world's wealthiest university (with an endowment of almost $20 billion) has refused to give serious consideration to granting its service workers--a group overwhelmingly made up of people of color--a living wage.

That stubborn and unthinking refusal by the Harvard Corp. and President Rudenstine to devote the necessary attention and resources to the least well-off in our community is what led to our occupation of their offices. Our coalition of students, workers, faculty, parents, alumni and Cambridge residents has been told repeatedly that living wage is a closed issue. We want the issue reopened. We can't accept the plight of people like Frank, a 60-year-old campus custodian. Frank gets up every day at 4 a.m., and area rents have forced him so far from Cambridge that he doesn't get to work until 7:15 a.m. Frank works until 4 p.m. at Harvard, takes the train back home and works at a supermarket until 10:30 p.m. Closing the issue means closing the door on the more than 1,000 people to whom Harvard pays poverty wages.

And so we find ourselves here in the president's office, occupying Massachusetts Hall, which sits in the middle of ivy-lined Harvard Yard. We sleep on expensive rugs, and strategize in antique chairs. Our meetings take place amid 18th century paintings and 19th century prints. Things have changed since our arrival, of course. We have transformed the plush trappings of Ivy aristocracy into a fully functional organizing center. Walls are covered in worker testimony about the difficulty of surviving on Harvard's wages and posters that declare "Workers Can't Eat Prestige." The hallway has become a media center with cell phones and press releases. But our lives are surprisingly unchanged; we are used to working around the clock organizing for a living wage. We just have new offices.

At this point, two weeks into our sit-in, we are deeply gratified by the incredible things happening outside. Harvard Yard has mutated from a staid pastoral setting into a massive tent city of supporters so densely populated that there is a waiting list to sleep out. More than 400 members of Harvard's famously atomistic faculty have signed a petition and took out a full-page ad in the Boston Globe. Alumni have started a fund for the Harvard Workers Center, a law-student-run group that provides free legal support to Harvard's workers. U.S. Sens. Kennedy, Kerry, Feingold and Wellstone have weighed in with support. Our rallies have swelled to almost 2,000 people--more than have gathered for a cause in Harvard Yard in decades.

But most important has been the total transformation of the role of workers on campus. The more than 1,000 workers who receive poverty wages have long been scared even to speak with members of the campaign for fear of being fired. Now, security guards denounce poverty wages in fiery speeches on the steps of the president's office and custodians organize marches across campus to demand decent wages. And as I write this piece, hundreds of dining hall workers are coming back to Mass Hall to demand a living wage and to celebrate our two solid weeks of occupying the offices of the people who thought they could block the consensus of an entire community.

Benjamin L. McKean is a Harvard junior majoring in social studies.