May 7, 2001

Leading the fight for a ‘living wage’: At Harvard, a moral argument for improving the lot of the working poor

By JIM WALLIS, MSNBC contributor

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 7 -- A great moral drama is unfolding at the world’s most famous university. Harvard is the second-richest non-profit organization in the world with an endowment of $19 billion; the wealthiest is the Vatican. The educational institution prides itself on offering intellectual and moral leadership to the global community. So why won’t it pay its poorest workers a living family wage?

Nearly 40 students and community supporters have entered the third week of a peaceful sit-in to ask that question. They have taken up residence inside Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall, which houses the offices of the president and provost, since April 18.

Numerous union representatives, alumni and political leaders have lent their support to the students’ cause. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent a message saying: “You are acting in the dual, time-honored traditions of student activism and non-violent civil disobedience. You are to be commended for your courage and conviction.” Cambridge Mayor Anthony Gallucio attempted to enter the building to speak with the protestors, but was denied entrance. He then spoke with the students through the windows of Massachusetts Hall, telling them: “As mayor of the city, I’m very proud of you.”


Last week, nearly 300 Harvard faculty signed a full-page ad in the Boston Globe in support of the student campaign, saying: “We believe Harvard, as a global leader in higher education, has a responsibility to lead by example in promoting economic fairness and human dignity.”

I was one of those who signed the ad. As an adjunct lecturer at the Kennedy School, I have followed the Harvard Living Wage Campaign from its beginning in the winter of 1999. That year I lived in Cambridge and talked often with the students involved in the cause. They questioned why this powerful academic institution was unwilling to pay its security guards, janitors and dining room workers a wage sufficient to support a family. The Living Wage activists say there are 400 to more than 1,000 people working on campus earning less than $10.25 an hour plus benefits. Some newly hired janitors earn only $7.50 an hour, and subcontracted dining hall workers earn as little as $6.50 an hour.

The idea that people who work should earn a wage that allows them to support a family is not a radical one, at Harvard or anywhere else.

In May of 1999, the Cambridge City Council passed a city living wage ordinance, and a year later passed an order urging the university to implement a living wage — currently calculated in that area to be $10.25 per hour plus benefits.

Despite the efforts of the campaign, the city council and countless others, the university continued to outsource jobs to private firms paying poverty-level wages. The sit-in’s basic demand is that all Harvard workers, whether directly employed or hired through outside firms, be paid a living wage of at least $10.25 per hour with basic health benefits.


That argument resonates with a number of groups. Campaigns for a living wage are one of the fastest growing movements in the United States. The movement has a simple assertion: people who work full-time should be able to support their families. Current minimum wage levels barely provide enough money for a single person to live above the poverty line, let alone a family with children. While the exact amount varies from place to place, a living wage is an hourly wage that allows a person working full-time to pay for the basic necessities of life — food, shelter, transportation, child care, etc. Each campaign is specific to its location, organizing capacity and political climate, but the common thread is that private organizations benefiting from public funds are required to pay their employees a living wage. Since the first major victory in Baltimore in 1994, 49 other cities and counties have passed living wage ordinances, and there are ongoing campaigns in more than 70 cities and on 12 campuses.

There is still plenty of work to be done at Harvard. The idea that people who work should earn a wage that allows them to support a family is not a radical one, at Harvard or anywhere else. It is a fundamental moral issue. If a wealthy institution like Harvard cannot “afford” to pay a basic living wage, something is very wrong with our values. As a former Harvard dean told me, “The amount of money it would take to bring all of Harvard’s low-wage workers up to $10.25 is lost in accounting every year.” It makes no sense for the university to resist that simple demand. Harvard has indeed offered extraordinary leadership to the world. It’s time to do so again.

Jim Wallis is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, editor in chief, Sojourners Magazine and convener of Call to Renewal, a national federation of faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty.