Harvard report rejects living-wage activists' pay recommendations

By David Abel, Globe Correspondent, 5/4/2000

In a snub to students, employees, and other supporters of Harvard's ''living wage'' campaign, an anxiously awaited report by a top-level Harvard committee released yesterday rejects the movement's main goal: a boost of all Harvard employees' minimum hourly wage to at least $10. The committee's report also defies multiple resolutions passed by the Cambridge City Council, which has called on the world's richest university to dip into its nearly $15 billion endowment to pay its employees enough to live in Cambridge. Two councilors even have said they would vote to block any future university construction in Cambridge if Harvard refuses to pay its lowest-income employees more than $10 per hour, an amount they consider to provide a minimum standard of living. ''Barring something miraculous, this is going to be a very disappointed city council,'' said Cambridge Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio, a living-wage campaign advocate who helped write the city's law now requiring all of its employees earn at least $10 an hour. ''We have an obligation not to rest until the living wage is addressed.'' The 31-page report, followed by a two-page dissent blasting the committee for proposing an overly liberal labor policy, does chart new territory that it says will improve the lives of low-wage workers. The committee recommends requiring the university to provide health insurance to all ''regular'' employees (those who work at least 16 hours a week, a drop from the current 20-hour requirement); phasing out contracts with service companies that do not provide employees health insurance; and spending $1.5 million to institute a ''workplace education'' program to improve employee skills. The report urges Harvard to establish guidelines for its service contracts with companies that provide low-cost janitors and dining hall workers. It also suggests the university enhance employees' benefits package with such perks as free museum passes, access to Harvard's libraries, and subsidized parking. The additional health care coverage and education program, according to the report, amount to an additional investment of $4,800 per employee. In rejecting a base wage of $10 per hour for all its employees, committee members and university officials laid out a layered argument. First, they said, of Harvard's total work force of 12,722 employees, which include faculty, clerical, technical, and service workers, and all of those not contracted out, only 372 - 2.9 percent - now earn less than $10 an hour. Next, an increase in wages is not the best long-term benefit for employees, they argue. Instead, literacy and language programs, computer training, and helping employees pass a high school equivalency exam, go further than a few dollars extra an hour. Finally, the committee said, bumping up entry-level pay hampers the collective bargaining process (38 percent of Harvard's employees belong to a union) and would require increases in pay for many other jobs. ''I can understand students being upset that we're not taking their proposal,'' said Paul Grogan, Harvard's vice president for government and community affairs. ''But I don't think it's fair to call this an arrogant effort. I think it's an earnest look at the problems with low-wage, low-skilled employees at the university.'' Students who have led the university's living-wage campaign, however, said after more than a year's worth of work and 17 meetings, they found the committee's findings self-serving and perks such as museum passes and library privileges ''insulting.'' Too little attention, they said, was paid to the 1,500 to 2,000 workers, many of whom make little more than $6.50 an hour who come from a private contracting firm to mop floors or flip burgers. They cite studies such as one by the National Low-Income Housing Commission that shows a wage of at least $15 an hour is necessary for a family to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Boston area. And many of the lowest-income employees, they said, have to work more than one job and have little time for special after-work programs or other perks. The most effective way to help such employees, they said, is to beef up their salaries. They fear that Harvard might force some to work fewer hours to prevent them from qualifying for the health insurance. And they ask: Is this what should be expected from the world's wealthiest university? ''The rhetoric is fine, but the problem is they don't flesh it out, and they don't change the reality of service work at Harvard,'' said Aaron Bartley, 24, a second-year student at the law school and a leading member of the living-wage campaign. ''Did they really think this is an adequate response to an employee who works 80 hours a week to pay rent and put food on the table to live in this city?'' Still, some viewed the report - which must be approved by Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine - as a valuable first step in a long-term effort to improve the university's employee benefits. Although Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, believes a minimum salary would be a boon, he said the committee's report is a sensible step. ''There's a lot of important unfinished work,'' he said. ''But it's a hugely important step. They are setting standards for contracted labor. We can work from here.''

This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 5/4/2000. Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.