December 19, 2001

Panel: Low-paid Harvard unions deserve raises

By KEN MAGUIRE, The Associated Press

BOSTON -- A Harvard commission has rejected a "living wage" that student protesters demanded, but said it's proposed something better - even higher wages with protections against outside contracting.

The group of faculty, administrators, students and workers has recommended that President Lawrence H. Summers dip into the school's $18 billion endowment to create a "parity wage" that would cost the school $3 million annually in wages and benefits.

Custodians, security and dining hall employees should be immediately paid between $10.83 and $11.30 per hour, the commission said in its report scheduled for release Wednesday.

Last spring, 30 students occupied then-president Neil Rudenstine's office for three weeks, demanding a living wage of at least $10.50 an hour for employees.

Lawrence Katz, commission chairman and a professor in the economics department, said the proposals will be more beneficial for workers than the living wage.

"We believe the right solution is to fix the system, not gut the system," Katz said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

The parity wage proposal is already causing controversy, with students pledging to protest the commission's recommendations.

The living wage plan sets the minimum salary and would bar the university from using outside companies - outsourcing - to do the work that Harvard employees can do. Wages increase as union contracts are renegotiated.

The parity wage sets the higher wage, although with no minimum guarantee, and is indexed to the U.S. consumer price index if the university doesn't reach contract agreements with unions. It doesn't bar outsourcing, but provides disincentives by mandating that Harvard pay contractors the same hourly rates that in-house union workers receive.

Rudenstine had pledged to reopen collective bargaining talks with unions within four weeks of the release of the report, Katz said. That responsibility now falls to Summers.

"I would hope that the president takes these recommendations very seriously," Katz said.

Summers offered no promises, but said he'll implement "appropriate measures" after a month of public comment and deliberation.

"I welcome the committee's clear statement that Harvard's on-campus service workers are 'integral contributors to the university mission,"' Summers said in a prepared statement.

The 100-page report has not satisfied the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which organized last spring's sit-in. The group planned to protest Wednesday in Harvard Yard, and at the Harvard Clubs in New York and San Francisco. They're sticking to their original demands of a living wage and the banning of outsourcing.

"Without a living wage, the committee's proposal of a parity wage is still a poverty wage," said student Madeleine Elfenbein, a member of the protesting group.

The report said a ban on outsourcing would hurt competition.

"Productivity could be greatly harmed," Katz said. "It would give up all the benefits of competition."

As of September, Harvard employed 14,500 workers. About 390 workers - custodians, security and dining hall personnel - are the subject of the wage dispute, earning less than the City of Cambridge's living wage of $10.68 per hour. Another 579 employees of service contractors at Harvard also earn less than that.

Their pay rate also has failed to keep up with inflation. The inflation-adjusted median wage for the custodial staff fell from $11 per hour in 1994 to just over $9.50 per hour in 2001, the report said.

A union representing Harvard janitors said the report is a good step, but not good enough.

"Workers at one of the world's most wealthy and prestigious institutions should not be living in poverty," said Rocio Saenz, deputy trustee of Service Employees International Union Local 254.

Jon Hiatt, general counsel of the AFL-CIO, praised the report.

"In honestly assessing Harvard's past failures and recommending effectively what is a living wage policy, although they're not calling it that, this would be a major accomplishment," Hiatt said in a phone interview from Washington,

The fact that the labor dispute took place at Harvard, the nation's oldest college, shouldn't be overlooked, he added.

"A lot of other universities and nonprofits will be looking at Harvard as a role model, whether they like it or not," Hiatt said.

The sit-in drew national attention. National labor leaders visited, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., scolded his alma mater, and movie star Matt Damon, a Cambridge native and one-time Harvard student, joined in.

Kennedy said he supports the commission's findings - approved unanimously by 19 members - but also commended the concurring views of five members who felt the panel should have been tougher on Harvard. Those members were three students, including one of the original protesters, and two union officials.

"Affirming the living wage principle is the right thing to do for Harvard's workers," Kennedy said. "In doing so, the Harvard leadership will help to advance this great cause for millions of other workers across America."