May 29, 2001

Rebels with a cause: Low-paid university staff such as cooks and cleaners are voting on a union-negotiated pay deal over here. Stateside, students fought their case.

By HELENA SMITH, in The Guardian (London)

America's oldest seat of learning, Harvard University, has been rocked by another revolution: one that might please George Washington, the man who helped defeat British rule by amassing troops on its iconic terrain in 1775.

When 21 slightly bedraggled students emerged from Massachusetts Hall, a small red-brick building in Harvard's central yard, their exit marked the end of three tense weeks holed up in the inner sanctum of America's educational establishment.

Not since the protests against the Vietnam war in the 60s had Harvard seen anything like it. The students had forced the world's wealthiest university to endorse a minimum Dollars 10.25 living wage for the innumerable porters and other service workers on its payroll. Mostly immigrants and women, the employees had for years complained of poverty wages but felt unable, because of the fear of intimidation or the language barrier, to publicly articulate their demands.

Faced with a groundswell of support from academic staff, unions, local politicians and alumni - many of whom had turned the normally pristine yard into a grubby tent city - Neil Rudenstein, Harvard's outgoing president, had finally bowed to pressure.

"It's a terrific victory," enthused John Sweeney who heads the American Federation of Labour, the country's biggest union. "Fortunately, those who are earning Harvard degrees took a moral stand against growing inequality and in so doing created what will become an important milestone in the 21st century fight for economic justice."

Under the settlement there would be no more subcontracting - unless a new committee suggested otherwise - while all employment practices would be reviewed.

The Harvard rebels' action is already making waves on other campuses. "The outcome was very favourable," said Emilou Maclean, an undergraduate who had been working on the living wage campaign for the past three years. "What has happened here, students backing workers, has changed the conversation between employers and employees. The issues of privatisation, subcontracting and race are not issues that are specific to this campus. They are national and go way beyond this county's borders."

What is even more important, say activists, is the example set by Harvard, an institution with an endowment of Dollars 19bn - more than the gross national product of most states.

Reflecting what many have described, in the wake of the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle and Quebec, as a growing radicalism on campuses across America, the sit-in was quick to prompt others elsewhere. In recent weeks the universities of Yale, Penn State, Connecticut and Northeastern have all seen similar actions.

"When Harvard, the General Motors of US academia, is seen to be embroiled in such action, it inspires students on other campuses to do the same," says Leslie Feinberg, one of many "professional activists" called to give a rousing speech at Harvard. "There is a rising tide of militancy in this county, a reaction to the conservatism of the 70s and 80s, which has not been seen since the civil rights movement and the campaign against the Vietnam war."

But in sharp contrast to the 60s, the labour movement this time round has assumed a very visible role in the student movement - with students across the nation being trained in protest tactics by unions.

Harvard, said Feinberg, was typical of the corporations now taking advantage of cheap, unskilled labour in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world. Although the university had offered to supplement paychecks by offering English language training and other free educational programmes, the employees' lot had certainly not improved.

According to students, at least 400 Harvard staff were on wages starting at Dollars 6.25 an hour. Growing numbers were being forced to resort to soup kitchens and homeless shelters as a result.

"The workers here at Harvard can't eat prestige. Many have to hold down two or three jobs just to survive. It really is amazing that students, some of whom are from very privileged backgrounds, have been able to identify with them," said Feinberg.

Several leading professors said it would be wrong to punish the protesters - despite the inclination of the administration - arguing they had shown the kind of leadership that Harvard prizes. (The university that has produced seven US presidents, countless foreign leaders and 37 Nobel laureates to date.) In America's corporate culture, careers can be severely cut short if activism of any kind is mentioned on a student's personal academic record.

"The students have done this for no personal gain: it was an act of altruism and the university should demonstrate its capacity to meet them at that level," said Professor Michael Herzfeld, an eminent British-born anthropologist at Harvard.

Would they do it again? "Really, we never thought we'd be in the building for more than a couple of days," says Maple Razsa, 29, one of three graduate students who staged the sit-in. "We never imagined that we'd have such political support from senators and labour unions. Without it, I don't think we'd have been able to remain inside. Massachusetts Hall is very establishment . . . the last person to occupy it was George Washington, after all."

Helena Smith is a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.