December 24, 2001

Harvard now sees the error of its wages

By ROBERT KUTTNER, in The Boston Globe

Last week, a Harvard committee headed by labor economist Lawrence Katz found that its low wage employees, mainly janitors and food service workers, indeed are paid less than a living wage.

The 19-member panel, including students, workers, administrators, and 10 faculty members, was established by outgoing Harvard President Neil Rudenstine last May to end the biggest Harvard sit-in in more than a generation. Some 40 students occupied Massachusetts Hall for weeks to protest the world's richest university's failure to pay its least powerful a minimal livelihood.

The report is a stunner. It concludes that the students were right. It found that 392 workers were paid less than the $10.68 per hour living wage defined by the City of Cambridge. Some are on food stamps. The committee concluded that the wages of custodians had actually fallen by 13 percent between 1994 and 2001.

The Katz committee recommended an immediate wage increase as well as a shift in Harvard's policies, so that wages of contract workers don't drag down those of permanent employees. The report stated pointedly, ''A good employer should work to ensure that its lowest paid and most vulnerable workers share in economic prosperity.'' Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who complimented the authors, deferred action until the new year. But there's more to the story.

The committee's chair, Lawrence Katz, is a widely respected scholar who served as chief economist of the US Department of Labor under Robert Reich. Katz did some serious labor-market research. He found that the downward drift of wages among Harvard's janitors had a lot to do with the fact that many are immigrants, people often desperate enough to work for less and hence to depress prevailing wages.

His research also confirmed that Harvard's contracting-out strategy not only drove down wages of contract workers, but of permanent employees as well. This occurred despite the fact that the permanent custodial employees are represented by a strong union, Service Employees Local 254. The committee suggested that Harvard break new ground by using contract workers to increase efficiency and flexibility, but not to drive down wages.

Katz also deftly walked a tightrope between some of his committee members who wanted even stronger recommendations and Harvard President Summers, a longtime colleague with whom Katz has co-authored scholarly papers. Katz will need Summers's support in the next bargaining round. And the committee, the students, unions, and an alumni support group will need to keep the pressure on. Many wanted wages to go to at least $15 an hour, as some other area universities pay custodians, rather than the floor of about $11 that Katz's committee recommended.

The broader issue is the role of an employer like Harvard in creating a decent society. Harvard has oscillated between looking big, arrogant, and stupid and taking a real leadership role on social issues. When Harvard plays the former role, it is usually a public relations disaster. When it plays the latter role, it often results from a combination of patrician noblesse oblige from above and idealistic student pressure from below.

Administrators spent more than a decade resisting the right of clerical and technical employees to unionize. Its white- shoe lawyers behaved like attorneys for union-busting company.

It took student and worker organizing and ultimately the personal intervention of then-President Derek Bok, once a labor law professor, to overrule the lawyers and get on with the task of bargaining in good faith. Katz's report, in this spirit, declares, ''Unions can and should provide an effective vehicle for providing Harvard's service workers with voice at the workplace.''

By the same token, Harvard's relationships with Cambridge and Allston have alternated between good neighborliness and a ruthless effort to acquire far-flung properties by stealth and to pay as little as possible in lieu of taxes.

It's hard to keep secret that Harvard is swimming in money. If Harvard were a conventional corporation, it would cite competitive pressures and pay low-wage workers as little as it could get away with. But Harvard, by definition, is a different sort of creature. In an era of cutthroat capitalism, institutions like Harvard need to stand for different values.

The students who risked their sheepskins, the professors who risked cordial relations with their president, and the janitors who risked their jobs all deserve our thanks. Seasonal tidings of community and generosity to all.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.