May 9, 2001

To Cheers, Harvard Wage Sit-In Ends

By DAVID ABEL, The Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE - About 30 students at Harvard University yesterday ended a three-week sit-in to demand a "living wage" for all campus employees, declaring victory despite no solid promise that the administration would boost the salaries of its lowest-paid workers.

Pale, their hair tousled, and slightly pungent after three weeks occupying Harvard's main administrative building, the haggard protesters filed out of Massachusetts Hall late in the afternoon, collecting roses from supporters as they began adjusting to life after 21 days indoors.

"It's great to see the sun," said a weary Aaron Bartley, 25, a third-year law student who initiated the living-wage campaign at Harvard. "It's just beautiful to see the sky again."

Although the university didn't agree to their foremost demand - that Harvard pay all its employees a minimum hourly wage of $10.25 - the students decided to vacate the building housing president Neil L. Rudenstine's office after lengthy negotiations produced an agreement between the administration and senior lawyers from the AFL-CIO, the labor organization.

The centerpiece of the deal is the formation of a committee comprising 10 professors, four students, three union employees, and two senior administrators, who would be responsible for what the agreement calls "a broad mandate to consider and to present recommendations about . . . the economic welfare and opportunities of lower-paid workers at Harvard."

In addition to reviewing whether approximately 1,000 of Harvard's 13,000 employees would get raises, the administration agreed to consider extending health benefits to hundreds of employees, halt the subcontracting of most jobs, renegotiate the contract of about 650 janitors and make any new agreement retroactive to May 1, and provide English classes to all workers who are interested.

"I think it's a success on many levels," said Bartley, as more than 1,000 supporters cheered and AFL-CIO senior officials hugged him and the other protesters. "The most important is that we brought the community together in ways that have never occurred before and we raised consciousness among faculty, students, and low-income workers about economic justice. That's rare and, we hope, the most lasting part of our campaign."

Harvard officials, however, also claimed success.

Their number one accomplishment, they say, is wooing the students from Massachusetts Hall and ensuring that the campus returns to normal as finals begin and graduation nears.

In a short statement, Rudenstine called the exit "a welcome development." Administrators also insist they didn't budge from their initial position: Harvard hasn't agreed to establish a fixed minimum wage and any decision about workers' pay will still be resolved by the traditional collective bargaining process with the university's unions.

As for boosting pay, increasing health benefits, and the moratorium on outsourcing for employees, senior administration officials said everything is still to be determined by future negotiations. Furthermore, they insist that they haven't rewarded civil disobedience on campus because all the students involved in the sit-in will be subject to some sort of punishment, though nothing more serious than probation.

"I'm fine with saying that both sides won," said Anne Taylor, the university's chief lawyer and the administration's main negotiator, as students celebrated throughout Harvard Yard. "It is definitely true that they have succeeded in radically raising awareness of wage issues on campus and around the country. I don't want to diss them, but you shouldn't believe all their claims of success."

Three weeks ago, about 50 students barged into Massachusetts Hall carrying little more than sleeping bags, food for a few days, and the conviction to stay put for as long as it would take. But none of them knew how long they would be there - most thought they would be kicked out right away - and few expected to gain as much attention as they did.

On April 18, Harvard began bargaining with an assortment of undergraduate and graduate students. By the end, the administration had to parse words with top lawyers from the AFL-CIO, mollify US Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, respond to hundreds of outspoken professors on campus and around the country, and quell repeated marches and calls for strikes by the campus's janitors, dining hall employees, and clerical workers.

From the Senate floor yesterday, Kennedy told the jubilant crowd via a cellphone held to a microphone: "To anyone in America who believes that student leadership is a relic of the past, I say come to Massachusetts Hall . . . By bringing justice to Harvard's workers, you have signaled new hope to countless other struggling low-wage workers in communities across America."

The agreement gave similar hopes to the presidents of the Massachusetts chapter of the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, who greeted the students right after they gave up their protest.

"This is not an unmitigated success, but it's the next best thing," said John Ronches, the leader of SEIU'S Local 254. "But I would say this is the most significant victory on a college campus for doing something about the gap between the wealthy and wage workers. We believe this will be a model for the rest of the country."

Many in the crowd agreed. Not long after the students left Massachusetts Hall, the throng began chanting for students to wage a similar campaign a mile down the road at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As much as the students were dogged about their cause, they were just glad to breath fresh air.

Many also said they would have to hunker down in the next few days to make up for all the missed school work and do their best to prepare for finals.

"I'm just looking forward to a few mundane days," said Maple Razsa, 29, a graduate student in anthropology. "Just a few mundane days would be very nice."