May 30, 2001
By ALEXANDER GOUREVITCH, The American Prospect (Web Feature)
The first union negotiations at Harvard since the student-led 21-day sit-in have yielded a promising new contract with the local union representing food service and dining hall workers, including significant wage raises. While there are still flaws with the package -- future raises are not indexed to inflation, and there are still many workers in the union who start with wages under the $10.25 that constitutes a "living wage" in Cambridge -- the pay increases and other concessions set a high standard for the other near-future contract negotiations.
Much has been made of the courageous sit-in, conducted in the University's Massachusetts Hall, which demanded raises for approximately 1,400 of Harvard's employees paid less than a living wage. But on top of giving these workers a shot at a better life, the broad support the sit-in garnered suggests that the Harvard Living Wage Campaign stands as a promising model for nationwide, grass-roots, progressive coalition building.
In addition to college students nationwide, the living wage issue has struck a chord with key progressive constituencies such as labor, civil rights groups, and the religious left. The issue resonates with students because it is their tuition that universities are using to pay campus workers poverty wages, and many are unwilling to be implicated in injustice within their own community. Unions represent the underpaid workers; civil rights groups have long made economic justice for minorities a key part of their platforms. And the religious left recognizes that fighting for a living wage is an important way to fulfill its commitment to serving those in need. With such a large and diverse group of progressives on board, politicians have begun to rally to the cause.
The Harvard Living Wage Campaign provides a case study in the power of this new progressive coalition. It received tremendous support from labor -- every local union in Cambridge endorsed the students. The local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) 26, representing the dining hall workers, went a step further, authorizing a strike to support the sit-in, electing the sitters-in honorary members of the union, and voting to make academic immunity for the students a key bargaining point during June contract renegotiations.
National labor leaders also endorsed the campaign. The president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Andy Stern, spoke at the sit-in; the entire executive board of the AFL-CIO, including President John Sweeney, gave speeches in front of Massachusetts Hall as well. Richard Trumka, the Secretary-Treasurer, even came back to speak and, on student request, to open the door of Massachusetts Hall as the sitters-in marched out.
The student-labor alliance was even stronger behind the scenes. One of the key moments during the three-week long sit-in came towards the end, when the AFL-CIO sent two of its top lawyers to negotiate with the administration. According to students who participated in the sit-in, the AFL-CIO lawyers' appearance was a turning point in the negotiations, and that without their help they would not have won so many concessions from the administration. The students have a history of aiding labor as well: over the past three years, the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), the umbrella organization for the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, has held rallies in support of various unionized workers, including security guards, janitors, and dining hall workers during crucial contract negotiations. This alliance between students and labor is one of the most promising ways in which the Harvard sit-in can serve as a model for nationwide grass-roots mobilization.
While students and labor were the most visibly active members of the living wage campaign at Harvard, civil rights groups and the religious left added key support. Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP, spoke last year at a rally at Harvard, and reiterated his endorsement after the sit-in began. Other civil rights groups have been more involved in municipal living wage campaigns than in college campaigns, but endorsements came from various Cambridge and Boston immigrant labor and legal groups.
Well-known religious leaders also made supportive appearances during the sit-in. Reverend Peter Gomes of Harvard's Memorial Church held services in front of Massachusetts Hall. Harvard Hillel performed Shabbat services there one Friday night. The local Catholic Church held Mass there one Sunday; and many of the religious leaders on or near campus were involved in the negotiations. When Johns Hopkins had a similar living wage sit-in, the Baltimore Catholic community gave it vigorous support, with clergymen leading marches into the city and bringing donations to the students.
The living wage issue, then, is not only an exciting revival of a progressive cause, it has the capacity to forge links between essential elements of a progressive coalition. In this sense, the living wage issue is unlike many other progressive causes, such as affirmative action, environmental protection, or universal health care, which do not actively appeal to such a wide range of progressive constituencies. The Harvard Living Wage Campaign offers an exciting vision of what future progressive coalitions might look like, as they go into municipal and statewide governments and press for change on college campuses. In fact, there is already a nationwide movement for a living wage led by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN); it organizes unions, minority groups and other local allies to get city, county, and state governments to pass living wage laws for government employees. The movement has won ordinances in over 50 localities including Los Angeles County, Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Oakland. This parallels recent victories and partial victories on college campuses at Wesleyan, University of Connecticut (after a three day sit-in), Johns Hopkins, and Harvard.
The Harvard sit-in and other living wage campaigns provide a further hope for the arenas in which a progressive coalition can be effective -- even when Republicans control Congress and the White House. College campuses, and perhaps more importantly, local and state governments, are vulnerable to the pressures of a strong student-labor-minority-religious left coalition. Religious conservatives used the politics-is-local method effectively in the 90s, when Democrats controlled Congress. They flooded school boards, city councils, county boards, and state and national representative seats with their own candidates -- which is precisely what a grass-roots progressive movement needs to do to complement its organizing efforts.
As far as local activism goes, the arena determines tactics and power. On college campuses, public embarrassment is one of the most effective tactics, which is why student-led creative actions like Harvard's sit-in can be successful. And with new high-tech tools such as e-mail, the Internet, and cell phones, students can conduct effective media campaigns: During Harvard's sit-in, students inside Massachusetts Hall communicated with outside organizers and conducted interviews with national reporters via cell phone, and responded to e-mails.
In local and state governments the ability to supply resources and votes is crucial to gaining power, which is why union and minority support is so crucial. Moreover, effective grass roots organizing can form the basis for a resurgence of interest in progressive causes in national electoral politics. In fact, the Harvard sit-in crawled with politicians. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy visited once and spoke via-cell phone at the victory rally; Democratic Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota also endorsed the campaign, as did Congressman Barney Frank and numerous local politicians.
The living wage issue is slowly registering on the national radar, and this bodes well for progressive politics -- even as Bush and the Republicans continue their conservative assault. As Ed Chiles, a union representative, said on the last day of the Harvard sit-in, "You have woken a sleeping giant, and that is us." There are promising signs that this "sleeping giant" is an ever-more-powerful progressive coalition, one that may soon make an entrance on the national stage.