May 8, 2001
By DAVID ABEL, The Boston Globe
CAMBRIDGE - They have the beating drums, the marches, the rhyming chants, the megaphones, and all the usual symbols of campus unrest.
But there is something very different about the nearly three-week-old protest in Harvard Yard: the role of organized labor.
Almost three weeks ago, about 50 students barged into an administration building with little more than sleeping bags, food for a few days, and the resolve to stay put until Harvard boosted the salary of its lowest-paid employees. Since then, their vigil has attracted a host of local and national figures - Ted Kennedy, Mel King, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney - as well as the television cameras that follow them.
"The support from organized labor has been critical," said Aaron Bartley, 25, one of about 30 protesters remaining in the building - who, along with two other students there, trained at the AFL-CIO's "Union Summer" program, a camp teaching protest tactics to students around the nation.
Since April 18, Harvard has gone from bargaining with an assortment of undergraduate and graduate students to contending with lawyers from the AFL-CIO, hundreds of outspoken pro-union professors from around the nation, and repeated marches and calls for strikes by university workers who belong to the Service Employees International Union.
The convergence of the labor movement and students is no accident. Over the past decade, organized labor has made a concerted effort to recruit on campus - from full-time professors to the undergrads who monitor dorms. And those efforts have been paying off. "Our numbers are growing exponentially," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.
Organized labor and student progressive movements have had a long and tense relationship. In some respects natural allies, they haven't always acted that way - the collegiate sons of managers were an uneasy fit with proudly blue-collar union leadership. Although labor played a significant role in the civil rights movement and the campaign against the Vietnam War, it wasn't visible in the high-profile student movements of the era, preferring to act through official channels.
Over the past few decades, however, even elite colleges have broadened to include the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers. And new leadership at the AFL-CIO has begun reaching out to students. When John Sweeney took over as president in 1995, after decades of declining union membership, one of his first projects was the creation of "Union Summer," a program modeled after voter-registration efforts during the civil-rights campaign. The goal was to teach college students and other prospective activists how to organize.
Among those students are Bartley and two of his colleagues in Massachusetts Hall, along with several more in the tent city that has sprouted in Harvard Yard.
In many ways, the living wage protest at Harvard is a direct outgrowth of that program. The campaign began in the fall of 1998 soon after Bartley enrolled in Harvard Law School. He had already spent years working for the AFL-CIO and other unions to help organize workers in Denver and Brooklyn, and he came to Cambridge with a cause.
Shortly after arriving at Harvard, Bartley joined up with students protesting the university's relationship with companies that manufacture clothing in sweatshops. He proposed the group broaden its efforts. The students began holding rallies and eventually demanded the university pay all its employees at least $10.25 an hour, which in 1999 the Cambridge City Council had declared to be the city's official living wage.
"In the beginning, the question we were asking was, 'How do we generate support for labor activism and connect the ideas to our own community?' " said Bartley. "We ultimately realized that organizing around a living wage for employees would get the community together more than any other campaign. . . . The whole point was to build bridges between labor and academia."
What has fueled the protest at Harvard, the students and their supporters say, echoes the larger movement that tore up the streets in Quebec and Seattle. At its base, and with significant support from organized labor, it is a campaign against the growing inequality between the world's rich and poor.
The students in Massachusetts Hall and the activists in the streets outside world trade conferences cite mounting evidence for their protests: A government report last year found that the richest 1 percent of US families, about 2.7 million people, have as much after-tax money to spend as the bottom 100 million combined; news reports show the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay jumped by 10 times in the past twenty years; and a recent United Nations report noted the gap between rich and poor countries is now 10 times wider than in 1970.
"These movements represent a new moral consciousness," said Robert Reich, a labor secretary during the Clinton administration. "It's not that labor is instigating the students."
Still, labor has taken advantage of the changing campus dynamics, raising consciousness and increasingly stepping in to organize and negotiate for students, workers, and professors at schools around the nation.
The American Association of University Professors, which has about 45,000 members, recently launched a campaign to organize part-time professors in and around Boston, and scored its first success last month: Hundreds of part-timers at Emerson College voted to unionize under the aegis of the AAUP.
The increasing ties to labor groups are changing entrenched campus relationships. And that has many in academia worried.
"It is changing the way almost all academic business gets done - and it raises some very serious problems," said Clare M. Cotton, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.
At Harvard, students take offense at any suggestion they are toadies of organized labor. Miranda Worthen, a 22-year-old senior, is so passionate about the living wage campaign that the social studies major decided to skip her grandfather's funeral to help support the student sit-in.
"There is no question that the unions are helping us," she said before a recent rally on the yard. "But this is not about us or the unions; it's about the workers. My grandfather was a labor activist and I think he would be proud."
His dying words, she said, were: "Don't mourn for me, Organize!"