May 8, 2001

Students give old college try for 'living-wage'

By PETER ROWE, The San Diego Union-Tribune

At Harvard, Point Loma High grad Anna Falicov has acquired a social conscience and a cell phone. Lately, she's been calling Mom and asking her to send the usual.

Clean undies.

Just kidding. Now in her third week of occupying Massachusetts Hall with 30 fellow protesters, Anna regularly phones home to Mission Hills. But Mom needn't fret about the essentials.

"I got a shipment of fresh underwear yesterday," Anna assured me last Friday, Day 17 of the sit-in.

Life's necessities are covered. Well-wishers deliver food. Sympathetic professors have held classes on the grass outside the building; protesters could open a window and catch a lecture. Mass Hall lacks showers, but the leaders of the Progressive Student Labor Movement stockpiled the next best thing.

"We have about 30 sticks of deodorant," Anna said.

They've got everything -- except a deal with the administration. But nobody ever claimed that Harvard is heaven. It's just another U.S. workplace wrestling with a tough question:

Do employers owe workers a "living wage"?

Four definitions

What is a "living wage"?

a.) It's mayhem in the marketplace.

The Employment Policies Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, predicts economic disaster if California's minimum-wage earners were paid the living wage adopted by San Jose, $10.75 an hour.

This, the institute argues, "would eliminate 612,000 jobs and raise labor costs $22.8 billion a year."

b.) It's simple justice.

Last Tuesday, UCSD students and staff marched to protest the low pay of campus janitors. San Diego may be closer to heaven than Harvard is, but some residents pay a hellish price for living here.

How many of us could handle rising rents, rising gas prices and rising SDG&E bills on $6.25 an hour?

"It's becoming impossible to live here," said Mary Grillo, executive director of San Diego County's largest labor organization, the Service Employees International Union Local 2028.

c.) It's part of a worldwide struggle to overcome poverty. In Cambridge, students are demanding the university pay janitors $10.25 an hour. This being Harvard, the protesters buttress their argument with dissertation-thick "fact sheets" and liberal guilt.

"I came to the realization that my position of privilege at Harvard had a lot of implications locally and globally," said Anna, 20.

For instance, many T-shirts sold on campus are made in foreign sweatshops. "I've spent a lot of time in Mexico," the student said, "and, growing up in San Diego, I'm knowledgeable about the maquiladoras."

d.) A "living wage" is a righteous crusade. But doesn't Anna, a junior majoring in urban studies and planning, have to study for her finals?

"It's certainly a good cause," agreed Celia Falicov, Anna's mom and an associate clinical professor of psychology at UCSD. "But I'm afraid it is going to take a toll on the students."

Asking a lot

No question, this has been grueling. "We have to wake up at 7," Anna said. "For a college student, that's asking a lot."

Protests, Ivy League-style, maintain a certain level of decorum. Students rise early to tidy the desks of arriving secretaries. Everyone's gentle with the hall's antique chairs, several of which were formerly displayed in the Fogg Art Museum.

"The last thing we want to do," Anna said, "is damage some historic object."

No. She and her peers only want to shatter some historic injustices.