May 9, 2001

Harvard Works It Out

By The Boston Globe Editorial Staff

The shrewd use of protest by Harvard University students and the underlying decency of the administration led yesterday to agreement on a process that should yield better wages for campus laborers, including hundreds of custodians and cafeteria workers. The three-week student takeover of Massachusetts Hall ended yesterday, peacefully and fruitfully.

Harvard made two important concessions. First, the university agreed to begin collective bargaining with SEIU Local 254 before its contract expires at the end of 2002. Although the university did not explicitly agree to the $10.25 wage demanded by the students, it's a good bet that custodians employed by Harvard will be brought up to a "living wage" in future negotiations, as they should be.

Second, the university agreed to allow both students and union representatives on the faculty-led committee that will guide university policy on "total compensation and opportunities available to lower-paid members of Harvard's work force." The charge to this committee will rightly include salary considerations for contract workers at Harvard, not just university employees.

Harvard lags behind many universities in its willingness to expand membership to non-faculty on important committees. This overdue change forces Harvard's aloof administrators to spend more time on the shop floor. For too long, the university resembled out-of-touch, top-heavy businesses where executives failed to connect with the rank-and-file. Students and their key supporters in organized labor, especially the AFL-CIO, taught the world's greatest university a basic lesson in good labor relations.

In their euphoria, however, students should not ignore an important lesson from the administration. Long before the students occupied Massachusetts Hall, Harvard offered its low-wage workers an impressive array of university-sponsored courses and training opportunities, including computer literacy and English language classes. Students routinely dismissed the importance of these offerings. But custodians and other low-paid workers who take advantage of university courses often advance more quickly than they could through a uniform wage floor.

Serious students of negotiation style might give low marks to this standoff. Harvard President Neil Rudenstine, for example, signaled from the outset that he would not physically remove students from the administration building, thereby giving away a psychological edge. And students were so busy mouthing slogans that they missed signals that the administration was ready to deal.

On substance, however, the outcome was good. The currents of this living wage debate deserve to reach other campuses and institutions that undervalue the welfare of their workers.