December 19, 2001

Harvard students get what they want, but ask for more

By DENISE LAVOIE, The Associated Press

BOSTON -- Harvard University students occupied the school's main administration building last spring in an impassioned protest aimed at raising the wages of the university's lowest-paid workers.

They succeeded in getting pay raises higher than they asked for, but some students were back protesting Wednesday.

Now, the students want the university to create a wage "floor" by permanently linking wages to the cost of living in the Boston area.

A report released Wednesday calls for wages for the lowest-paid workers to increase to between $10.83 and $11.30 an hour - higher than the "living wage" of at least $10.50 an hour called for by the students last spring.

The students approve of the wage increases recommended in the report from a 19-member committee of administrators, students, professors and workers, but say the proposal does not go far enough.

"The problem is that these wages are not pegged to any worker's real needs," protester Roona Ray said.

"The numbers are not based on the needs of workers in the Boston area. They are not calculated based on how much rent costs in the area. They're not based on how much child care costs, how much food costs. They are arbitrarily pegged to the lowest-paid workers," said Ray, a 21-year-old biology and women's studies major.

The protesters marched outside the office of university president Lawrence Summers, then headed to the offices of 10 deans for similar protests. They also planned to protest at Harvard Clubs in New York and San Francisco.

Hundreds of students, faculty and workers blanketed Harvard Yard last spring with tents and 30 people occupied former president Neil Rudenstine's office for three weeks.

In response, the university set up the committee to study the wage issue and come up with recommendations.

The committee recommended that Summers dip into the school's $18 billion endowment to fund a $3 million "parity wage" increase in benefits and pay. The policy would guarantee subcontracted employees the same minimum wage as union members.

Custodians, security and dining hall employees would immediately receive the raises from their current rate of about $9.50.

Commission chairman Lawrence Katz, an economics professor, said the proposals will be more beneficial for workers than the "living wage" sought by the protesters.

"We believe the right solution is to fix the system, not gut the system," Katz said.

The protesters want Harvard to include a cost-of-living adjustment in its negotiations with the unions.

"It should not negotiate over whether or not the people who make the university run day-to-day should have to live in poverty," said Lara Jirmanus, who graduated last spring.

About 390 of Harvard's 14,500 workers are the subject of the wage dispute, earning less than the City of Cambridge's living wage of $10.68 per hour. An additional 579 employees of university contractors also earn less than that.