May 25, 2001

Sit-Ins Over Staff Wages Have Different Outcomes at Harvard and U. of Connecticut

By The Chronicle of Higher Education

Students at Harvard University ended a 20-day sit-in this month with a promise by the university to form a committee.

Dozens of members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over an administration building on April 18 to demand a minimum wage of $10.25 per hour for all university workers.

The settlement reached earlier this month calls for the formation of a committee that will study wages and benefits of university employees, including janitors, who were the prime focus of the "living wage" campaign.

About 400 of the university's 13,000 employees earn less than $10.25 an hour.

Although the recommendations will be nonbinding, protesters said the new committee guarantees that the university's lowest-paid workers will have a voice.

"Three weeks ago, the administration was saying this issue was dead, and now they've agreed to reopen it," said Brent Zettel, a senior and one of the protesters. "There's now a community of consensus in support of the living wage."

Acco rding to the agreement, the university will not outsource work currently performed by Harvard-employed custodians, food-service personnel, museum guards, or parking attendants until the committee makes its recommendations in December.

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Students at the University of Connecticut fared much better: After a sit-in of just three days, the university met their demands.

The day the Harvard protest ended, Connecticut students gathered to push for increased pay for some janitors.

Students staged the sit-in after four months of urging the administration to raise janitors' minimum wages from their current $6.50 without benefits to at least $8.47 an hour plus benefits. The university agreed to the increase, which would match what workers doing the same job in the private sector earn.

"It's definitely a victory," said Becky Maran, one of eight protesters who had occupied the university's administration building. "I'm glad we're out of there."

The university uses its own janitors, who earn $16 an hour plus benefits, to clean dormitories, but it hires Capital Cleaners, a private contractor that pays the lower wages, to clean academic and administrative buildings, said Richard A. Veilleux, a university spokesman.

"I now believe that the university can commit to the wage increases without jeopardizing our ability to secure funds for other critical needs such as student financial aid and additional instructional resources," said Philip E. Austin, the university's president, in a statement released earlier this month.

Officials did not give in to the students' demand for a moratorium on subcontracting university or state jobs for a year.