Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company

The Boston Globe

May 14, 2000, Sunday ,THIRD EDITION



By ROBERT A. JORDAN, Globe Staff


Some students have learned so well that they have taken on the role of teacher themselves. Such is the case with former student Matt Damon.

He and fellow Oscar winner Ben Affleck were asked to speak at a recent rally for the Harvard Living Wage Campaign. Damon said in his speech that it was painful but morally incumbent for him to reproach the school for not living up to its own moral standards, just as a son might reproach a parent. And that is what Damon, and Affleck, whose father and stepmother worked at Harvard, and hundreds of Harvard students have been doing for the past year - reproaching and educating Harvard on the need to provide its workers with a living wage.

In this case, that wage is equal to what the parents in a family of four in Cambridge must earn to pay for the rent, utilities, food, and clothing, or what a single parent with one child might require to meet the same bills. It works out to $11.41 an hour in the first case, and at least $17.42 an hour in the second, according to a study by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, or WEIU.

Damon told the crowd that the lesson he learned at Harvard has stayed with him, especially when he started a company and began to hire employees. "I have always tried, in the tradition of conduct becoming a Harvard student, to treat my employees with respect, courtesy, decency, and fairness - which includes a good living wage, one that accounts for the cost of living in the area I am asking them to work."

Harvard, he said, "is showing nary a one of the attributes they threaten to expel kids for not living up to. This conduct is conduct unbecoming Harvard University."

It is not just a famous son reminding Harvard of its failings these days. Rather, workers have been joined by students, local unions, and Cambridge city officials to deliver the message.

The two sides are divided by what amounts to $3.50 an hour and health benefits.

Cambridge City Councilor Marjorie Decker and others involved in the Living Wage Campaign have repeatedly asked Harvard to boost the minimum wage for its workers from $6.50 to $10 an hour, with health benefits. They are advocating on behalf of the entire work force, including subcontracted workers who may be underpaid by their employers, as well as workers directly employed by the university.

In a recent letter to the Coalition of Harvard Unions, which joined the living wage campaign, Harvard's office of Human Resources noted that it has been "carefully examining a great many issues having to do primarily with Harvard's contingent workforce."

The letter said that "with respect to the adoption by the University of tighter controls on the process of contracting with outside service providers, your concerns in this area are well known to us." Officials promised to investigate situations where they hear that providers are not meeting relevant laws and "take action when necessary."

But when it comes to the central issue of a living wage for Harvard workers, the response has been disappointing. After a series of meetings over the past 15 months, an ad hoc committee selected by (but not limited to) university officials released a report that acknowledges the school's responsibility to its work force and subcontractors, but - in the words of one student - "its proposed guidelines are vague at best and damaging at worst."

Among the committee recommendations are extension of health benefits and tuition assistance for part-time employees who work, on average, more than 16 hours a week.

In addition, the committee recommended that Harvard require its nine-month or longer subcontractors to pay their Harvard-based workers who work more than 16 hours a week the same health benefits as regular employees. However, the living wage advocates worry that this would result in some employees having their hours cut back so Harvard could save money to cover benefits elsewhere.

In effect, the activists argue, Harvard's proposal would "deteriorate rather than ameliorate" working conditions.

What they point to is the fact that the university, with an endowment of more than $12 billion, can afford to establish standards that provide a living wage and health benefits to all workers.

The campaigners are not going to go quietly. "We demand more of Harvard," they wrote, "and we will continue to fight for a living wage and benefits until Harvard takes the high road."

Damon best summed it up when he said the issue "isn't about politics or self-aggrandizement or about me." He added, "It's about respect, courtesy, decency, fairness - and it's about time."