Damon, Affleck back minimum wage fight against Harvard

By Anne Thompson, Associated Press, 05/06/00

CAMBRIDGE - Sporting Hollywood tans and scuffed-up work boots, native sons Ben Affleck and Matt Damon brought celebrity sheen to a rally Saturday urging Harvard University to raise its minimum wage to $10.25.

The "living wage'' campaign, pushed by the city council and student activists, is the latest showdown in a long-running feud between the wealthy, uber-elite university and a city so liberal its nickname is "The People's Republic of Cambridge.''

The Ivy League vs. the little guy was the theme of Affleck and Damon's 1997 film "Good Will Hunting'' about a working-class math genius. The two starred in the film and wrote the screenplay, based on personal experience: Affleck's parents worked at Harvard, while Damon attended Harvard - but dropped out - and both went to the un-elite public Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

"Make this school a place where you don't have to avert your eyes in shame when you encounter a janitor in the hallway,'' said Affleck, whose father was, in fact, a janitor and whose stepmother was a cleaning woman.

He and Damon, standing in front of a banner declaring "You can't eat prestige,'' drew cheers from a crowd of more than 500 that included girls - and a few women - there chiefly to snap photos of their favorite leading men.

Activists said they held the rally to show they weren't going to drop the issue after a Harvard committee earlier this week recommended policy changes that included increased health coverage and workplace education but failed to address the minimum wage. The city last month raised its minimum wage to $10.

The Harvard committee said less than 3 percent of its workers earn less than $10.

University spokesman Joe Wrinn on Saturday repeated Harvard's stance that wages should reflect union negotiations and that paying for education, and allowing employees to take classes during work time, will help them escape low-wage jobs. While this particular argument has been going on for 15 months, Harvard continually finds itself under attack from a city that benefits from the tourism and wealth the university brings but resents its financial and administrative power.

"A lot of it is paternalistic,'' said Donene Williams, a brings but resents its financial and administrative power.

"A lot of it is paternalistic,'' said Donene Williams, a Harvard secretary and union leader attending the outdoor rally near the university Science Center.

"Harvard says, 'We, up in the ivory tower, will decide what's best for you. And the workers don't want that.''

As a former resident of both the ivory tower and the disgruntled city, Damon acknowledged the "strained relationship'' between the two. "I'm a proud child of that rocky marriage,'' he said with a brilliant grin. "I'm terminally optimistic that marriage can work.'' Damon also accused Harvard of not setting a good example for its students - a view shared by some students in the crowd.

"It's absurd,'' said Shanya Dingle, 21, a senior social studies major sitting cross-legged on the lawn. "This is an institution that comes out of the Enlightenment - liberty, equality and the right to pursue happiness - and it denies its workers the very values it tells its students to pursue.''