May 18, 2001

David and Goliath in Cambridge, Massachusetts


Something a little unusual happened this spring at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Typically around this time of year, students are finishing up their classes and getting started with their final papers. Workers are preparing the lawns in the Yard, at the center of campus, for graduation. Professors and administrators are finishing up their work and getting ready to go on vacation to Europe or write books over the summer. But that's not how it happened this spring. This spring the talk on campus turned to justice for Harvard's workers. Instead of doing their papers or attending class, fifty students sat in the administrative offices of the University demanding higher pay for Harvard's workers. Outside, hundreds more students rallied every day in solidarity with the protesters inside. Instead of tending the grass, workers joined us in marching all over it at our rallies. Professors laid their books aside and organized in support of us, even teaching classes outside the building for the benefit of the protesters. And the administrators? They didn't go to work. Instead, most of them cowered at home, waiting for things to settle down and the students to go away. But as days turned to weeks, they began to talk, and then they began to give in. In three weeks, we defeated the nation's richest university and achieved an unprecedented level of awareness of the need for economic justice on campus.

What happened these last three weeks was rooted in a more than two-year-old struggle for workers' rights at Harvard. The Living Wage Campaign here began in fall 1998, when the city of Cambridge was considering a living wage ordinance much like the one Los Angeles had just passed. Living expenses in Cambridge are among the highest in the country, and the service workers-janitors, security guards, food servers, clerical staff-employed by the city and its prestigious universities have trouble finding affordable places to live. With little opposition, Cambridge passed a living wage ordinance, requiring the city and its contractors to pay employees $10.25 an hour plus benefits. In the same ordinance, Cambridge asked Harvard, then as now the largest employer and landowner in the city, to do the same. Unless Harvard did so, the ordinance would be virtually meaningless, leaving the largest body of employees in poverty. Harvard did not respond to the city's request.

The students in the Campaign knew that the problem of poverty identified by the city extended to our campus, especially among the service workers who cook our food, clean our halls, and make the university run smoothly. Over 1,000 workers at Harvard were at the time paid less than a living wage; most of them were people of color. We could not simply accept the plight of people like Frank, a 60-year-old campus custodian. Frank gets up every day at 4am to go to work here. Area rents are such that he's been forced to move so far from Cambridge that he doesn't get to work until 7:15am. Frank works every day until 4pm at Harvard, then takes the train back home and works at a supermarket until 10:30pm. Other hard-working employees here are so poor that they have to eat in soup kitchens and live in homeless shelters just to get by. We hoped that all the administration needed to end this injustice was an impetus from within the University.

I: The First Year

At first, we tried to reason with the administration. We asked to meet with President Neil Rudenstine, and were refused. Instead, we received a letter from the Director of Labor Relations assuring us that Harvard's wages were fair. Thus refused, we decided to stage our first rally to press the administration. After extensive planning and organization-most of us had never done anything like this before-we managed to attract over 200 people to a rally featuring historian Howard Zinn. Now the administration responded, at last offering us a meeting with President Rudenstine. Not long after we saw him in April 1999, and after the city of Cambridge twice passed an ordinance asking that Harvard pay a living wage, the President at last agreed to put together a committee to study the issue. Internal pressure, we thought, had paid off where the external pressure of the City Council could not.

The new Committee was comprised entirely of faculty and administrators chosen by the President himself-no students were asked to serve, even though we had been the first to raise the issue. More amazingly, this committee to investigate working conditions at Harvard included no workers or worker representatives among its eight members. This shocking lack of representation left us unsurprised when the Committee reported in the spring of 2000 that Harvard's wages were quite fair. The report did say that Harvard workers should get a few additional benefits: access to Harvard's libraries and museums, official Harvard ID's, free English-language classes and limited subsidized healthcare. These programs are good, we said at the time, but workers can't eat museum passes. And the best parts of the program, including the free English classes, are much too small for the demand. Hundreds of workers have been left on waiting lists, their request for classes unanswered for months at a time. The committee also recommended extending health coverage to all employees working over 16 hours a week. But the health-care packages were so expensive that virtually none of the workers could afford them. Worse, advertising for them began six months after they were first available, and even then only in English to a worker population comprised mostly of Spanish speakers. In the year since the committee report came out, only 19 workers have signed up for the new health benefits package.

II: Towards the Sit In

For the remainder of the 1999-2000 school year, we tried to get the administration to reconsider the Committee's report. They told us the issue was closed with the Committee's report, that it was their final word on the issue of worker welfare. We had an enormous rally a few weeks before the end of school featuring live speeches by Academy Award-winning actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (both of whom live in the area and are intimately familiar with the sorry state of working conditions here). Still, the administration ignored us. As this school year began, we again tried to get their attention with requests for meetings, rallies and fun tactics like cookie deliveries (each one with frosting that read "Living Wage Now"). As the administration refused to consider our demands, frustration mounted. We knew we had to do something to get the attention of the university and force the administration to reopen the issue. That something, we realized slowly over the course of many meetings, would be a sit-in.

We didn't come easily or quickly to the decision to sit in. The Campaign has weekly meeting, in which decisions are made by consensus. That is, one person strongly disagreeing with the rest of the group can block a decision. And we are entirely non-hierarchical, meaning there is no defined leadership or central committee-not even a defined membership. This democratic organization, however it may slow down our decision-making, is a vital part of our campaign. One some level, we're trying to create among ourselves the democracy and equality that we'd like to see in the rest of the world. When in mid-March at the end of a four-hour meeting we made the final decision to sit in, everyone present assented. So we began our planning with an unprecedented level of unity. For the next month, we scouted out locations, stocked up on food and equipment and quietly prepared support teams among students, faculty and the unions.

The protesters on the "inside team," those who were going to be actually sitting in, were a diverse group. Economically, they were neither the richest nor the poorest of Harvard students. A majority had either one or two Jewish parents, but there were several Latinos and other people of color. There were two Israelis. A majority of the people inside were Harvard undergrads, with a significant minority of Harvard graduate students from various schools (primarily Harvard Law School, the Kennedy School of Government and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences). There were an additional ten or so people community members who were not affiliated with Harvard. Several of them have been involved members of the Campaign for years.

One result of the preponderance of Jews inside the building was that some of us began to use Hebrew as a code. One Israeli, Iris Halpern, described it: "I did make use of Hebrew as a kind of code. I didn't do it while I was on the inside, but when I came out, and as the weeks progressed and the escalation technique dialogue got more serious, we had to start passing sensitive information and questions through the windows. I knew none of the cops understood Hebrew, so I would ask for someone inside who spoke Hebrew. They'd lean out the window and we'd communicate in Hebrew so that we couldn't be overheard and stopped." The use of Hebrew as a secret language, although it ended after the second week when the rest of the Hebrew-speakers left, was very useful to us while it lasted.

On the morning of April eighteenth, the day the sit-in began, the "inside" and "outside" teams met separately to prepare. The anxious chitchat in the outside meeting was punctuated-every minute it seemed-by shrill cell phone rings. Since we were waiting for the call telling us that we had gotten into the building, every ring as the entry time approached increased the tension in the room. Over in the building next door to Mass Hall, the inside team shouldered their huge camping backpacks filled with clothes, toiletries, sleeping bags and a few books. Some people were also carrying laptop computers. At 2:30, they went downstairs to the basement of a nearby dormitory, and at the signal raced across a bit of lawn and into Mass Hall. The administrators didn't put up any resistance; the protesters just walked in. They immediately put down their backpacks and bags, filling the main hallway, the reception room and two offices with their bodies and belongings.

In the tense moments after they got in, one of the protesters read our demands out loud. We handed out to all of the people in the building copies of the demand and a letter promising that we wouldn't damage anything inside. Our single demand was: "All Harvard workers, whether directly employed or hired through outside firms, must be paid a living wage of at least $10.25 per hour, adjusted annually to inflation, and with basic health benefits." In order to implement this, we said, the University needed to "adopt a policy of maintaining wage and benefit levels when jobs are outsourced or reclassified" as well as creating "a board…to oversee implementation of the living wage policy." Outsourcing is the practice of firing directly-hired workers and giving their jobs to often non-unionized workers hired through a private company as a way of lowering labor costs. With the understanding that the living wage was not simply a local issue, we also asked the University to join the "Worker Rights Consortium, the only independent factory monitoring group," to make sure the University apparel wasn't being made by sweatshop labor-that is, workers who don't earn a living wage for their own communities.

III: Life Inside Mass Hall

As the first day of the sit-in continued, and then lengthened into the first week, certain changes began to come over the Yard. Harvard is the oldest university in America, and it looks the part. The Yard is a rectangular expanse of lawn with regularly spaced, ancient trees. It's crisscrossed by paths radiating out from the oldest buildings and surrounded by three or four-story red-brick buildings with neat little white window frames. Into this orderly, cloistered world we brought a very healthy chaos. By Day Six, the whole Yard had assumed the air of, as one person put it, a cross between a camping party and a police state. The trees were covered with streamers, with Living Wage Now banners hung between them. On the carefully tended lawns, some twenty-some-odd tents had appeared for solidarity sleep-outs every night. And all day, and into the night, crowds of people hung around Mass Hall, speaking to disheveled protesters hanging out the windows.

Inside the building, daily life consisted of waking up early-around 7am-to have planning meetings before the administrative staff entered the building. Throughout the day, people would work in committees devoted to student outreach, media contacting, alumni outreach, and drafting various statements and emails to people on the outside. There were many long meetings to decide strategy, and these were held in small groups so that people could continuously maintain control over the areas of the building we were occupying, most importantly the bathroom. Sleep and schoolwork were both difficult under the stressful and crowded conditions inside the building. In the absence of a shower, people washed their hair and eventually started doing their laundry in the bathroom sink.

In those first days, we also began to see how broad our support was. We already knew from a poll by the Crimson, our campus' daily paper, that student support for a living wage was nearly 80%. But we had no idea how the community would rally behind us. From unions to faculty to religious groups to politicians, everyone was showed up to support our cause. And our support crossed political boundaries, because as one student put it, "this is not an issue of politics, this is an issue of moral decency." The range of people involved would only grow as time went on, and their commitments would continue to deepen.

IV: Supporters

The very first night, the unionized dining hall workers brought pizza for the protesters, and the next day began delivering lunch and dinner daily. They continued to come out every Wednesday by the hundreds after their regularly scheduled union meetings. The first time they did that, we were all blown away. For two hours, three hundred students and union members yelled, chanted, marched and raised hell under the very eye of the police. At the beginning of the rally, it was difficult to hear what a person speaking directly into your ear was saying. When a counterprotester appeared after about half an hour, holding a sign that said "GO HOME," a police sergeant went up to him and hissed, "Put it away, you're inciting the crowd." The energy in the air was palpable.

As the days went by, the support from unions grew beyond just Harvard, and beyond just bodies at rallies. On the eighth day, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO endorsed us and gave us $500 for expenses. Then just shy of two full weeks, we had our biggest rally with the leadership of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in America. We had the President, Vice-President and the Secretary-Treasurer of this organization, representing "forty million people living in union households." Linda Chavez-Thompson, the VP, spoke about pay disparities for people of color and women, precisely the people who are paid the least at Harvard. She also stressed the importance of a living wage to anyone trying to raise a family. Then John Sweeney, the President, spoke, calling us the "hope of Harvard." He spoke of the students and the workers making the university great and "making the university work." He said that the unions and the students stand together, shoulder to shoulder, facing the power of the university.

In addition to the unions, the faculty and the graduate students began organizing around the issue. Within the first few days, there were both graduate and faculty Committees for a Living Wage that hadn't existed the week before. The Campaign had had very limited contact with grad students before the sit-in started, but within just a few days the grad students were able to organize their own support rally with hundreds of people. Likewise, the faculty began organizing immediately to help us achieve our goals. In the middle of the second week, a letter was published in the Boston Globe with over three hundred faculty signatures asking the President to meet our demands. In addition to their signatures, many professors came and spoke at our rallies. When economist and Women's Studies Department Chairperson Juliet Schor spoke, in words often echoed by other faculty, she said that we were reversing the process of education at Harvard. By raising the moral issue of low-wage labor, we were in fact teaching the faculty as well as being taught by them. That, of course, didn't stop some faculty from coming to teach their classes outside Mass Hall. We had classes on subjects as diverse as Persian poetry, the Book of Revelations and Theodore Roosevelt.

At the same time, all sorts of community groups turned out in force to support us. The very first weekend, we had Kabbalat Shabbat outside Mass Hall, ministers preaching about the living wage from their pulpits and the first Catholic Mass ever held in the Yard, each event attended by over forty people. One entire church congregation actually came over that Sunday morning to bless the protesters. From the first weekend until the last, every Friday evening we had Kabbalat Shabbat and every Sunday afternoon we had church services. The campus religious leaders wrote a letter during the second week, which they had published in the Crimson. The letter said, among other things: "We commend the students involved for their moral courage and for conducting, with dignity and restraint, a now two-week long vigil of civil disobedience." Somewhat further on, the chaplains said that "the needs of the poor must take priority over the wants of the wealthy." All of this support went far towards vindicating the Divinity School students' banner that was hanging in the Yard: God is for a Living Wage.

In addition to the powerful support of the religious community, we got a tremendous boost from the citizens and institutions of Massachusetts as well. The Cambridge City Council-which had passed the original living wage ordinance back in 1998-reiterated its support for a living wage at Harvard. The City Council and Harvard have a rocky relationship at best, because although Harvard is the largest landowner in the city, it is a non-profit organization that pays no taxes. The contrast between the city and Harvard is most glaring when you consider that Harvard's endowment is nearly 1,000 times the size of Cambridge's annual revenue. The City Councilors spoke again and again at our rallies, telling stories of how their constituents had been bullied by Harvard. They thanked us for standing up for the rights of the oppressed and "speaking truth to power." Both of Massachusetts' US Senators endorsed us and our sit-in, as did Massachusetts representatives and Senators from Wisconsin and elsewhere.

But probably our most massive advantage came through our use of technology. Students entered the building with a dozen cell phones and half a dozen laptop computers that they were able to connect to the Internet. From there, they sent out a steady stream of articles and press releases and updates on the situation. The sit-in's website,, was also key. It had daily schedules, updates, press releases, photographs, and support messages posted for the world to see. It registered thousands upon thousands of hits during the protest, and encouraged people the world over to write e-mails to the Harvard Adminstration demanding a living wage. From England to Finland to the farthest reaches of the United States, our use of the Web allowed us to get literally worldwide support in a matter of weeks. During the second week, we actually found out the Oxford University Student Council in England had endorsed the sit-in. In using computers and the global Internet network, we made use of the tools of globalization to promote local responsibility and accountability.

V: Victory

With all this support pouring in from across the globe, we were not surprised when the administration finally agreed to reconsider our demands. The protesters agreed to accept the University's offer of a new committee to study issues surrounding low-wage labor at Harvard. The committee that they agreed to assemble looks very much more like the University community than the previous one, and we expect it will ultimately meet our demands. On the committee are: four students, three union representatives, two administrators and ten faculty. Until that committee finishes its report in December, Harvard has agreed to a moratorium on outsourcing. And once the committee reports back, Harvard will renegotiate its contract with the janitors' union and make all pay increased retroactive to May 1, 2001. Although we would have preferred immediate implementation of our demands, all the University had really managed to do with this committee is delay their implementation for a few months. We have still won.

And we've won something more than just higher wages. We succeeded, in these three weeks, in building a real community around the issue of the living wage. We've brought together people who otherwise rarely if ever work together, especially labor unions, faculty and religious groups. They've gained a new understanding of one another's importance, and a new strength in their common goals. As the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, and as a not for profit, Harvard was for years all but immune to pressure from inside or out. This community, uniting, has made it possible for us to challenge Harvard's immense power. We've shown that it can be beaten, just by holding a little bit of ground in a building for a few weeks. We will all remember Harvard Yard electrified by the chants of over four hundred dining hall workers who came to deliver dinner to the students inside. We will remember janitors and security guards delivering fiery speeches and marching around the building for hours in support of the sit-in. We will all remember the power that we hold simply by being many people, together in a community. And as we face the challenge today of the apparently limitless power of unaccountable corporations across the globe, we remember the community we built and what it was able to do.