The Living Wage Campaign's Initial Response to the HCECP Report

December 19, 2001

The report released today by the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies contains important documentation of Harvard's attacks on workers' dignity and well-being during the last decade, and it goes on to recommend several substantive improvements in the treatment and pay of Harvard's service-sector workers. Yet in each critical area of recommendation, the report does not go far enough: it recommends a one-time wage increase but not a permanent, annually-adjusted living wage policy; it recommends lowering benefit co-payments, but its call is vague and fails to include necessary reductions in hours requirements; it offers only token protections for workers' right to organize unions; and its implementation plan dangerously entrusts the future of low-wage jobs at Harvard to the same administration which has destroyed them during the last ten years. We firmly believe that President Summers should not only implement the HCECP report immediately, but that he should do more than that, supplementing the committee's recommendations to truly guarantee every worker the things that the HCECP promises but incompletely delivers: a living wage, affordable and accessible benefits, a fully protected right to organize, and a transparent, accountable process to implement and monitor these long-overdue reforms.

The successes of the HCECP report are significant and should be noted. For the first time, a Harvard committee has confirmed what our community has asserted for years in the face of administrative denials: Harvard takes advantage of its most vulnerable workers, needlessly exploiting them and violating their dignity as human beings. The HCECP report documents that Harvard has used outsourcing and collective bargaining to cut workers' wages, and it charges that Harvard does not follow or implement many of its own stated labor policies. Beyond these important points of recognition, the HCECP has produced several substantive policy recommendations. The report's recommended wage increases, while modest and lacking long-term adjustment, will go some way to alleviating the basic poverty of campus workers, and they reflect the important principle that wages should provide for essential human needs. In addition, the committee's recommendation that outsourced and non-union workers should receive pay and benefits equal to directly-hired, unionized workers, is groundbreaking. It does not provide the long-term wage protection of a living wage policy, but it embraces the principle of "equal pay for equal work" that Harvard has long resisted. If adopted, the HCECP parity proposal will reduce Harvard's ability to exploit workers through outsourcing, and it will establish a powerful precedent in a country where outsourcing is standardly used to cut wages and benefits.

We believe, however, that the most valuable part of the HCECP report may be the individual statements at the end of it: statements written by 8 of the 19 committee members, including the majority of the workers and students on the committee -- the only constituencies not appointed by the administration -- and every person of color on the committee. These statements assert that the HCECP recommendations do not go far enough, and they urge the adoption of several additional measures: a living wage policy, specific guidelines to make benefits affordable and accessible, protections for workers' right to organize, and a participatory implementation process.

Consider the HCECP wage recommendations. The HCECP unanimously asserted that Harvard's wages are too low, and that they should be raised and prevented to returning to poverty levels in the future. Yet the committee failed to recommend any mechanism to ensure long-term wage protection. It recommended that Harvard reopen its contracts with its service-sector unions and negotiate immediate wage increases bringing the lowest-paid workers at least to the range $10.83-$11.30 per hour. It then recommended that Harvard implement a permanent "wage parity" policy, pegging the wages of outsourced and non-union workers to the increased wages of directly-hired, unionized workers. These recommendations promise to raise wages today, but without a permanent, annually-adjusted living wage floor, there is no guarantee that Harvard will not push them down again in the future. Even if the university implements a one-time wage boost and parity, it could easily lower wages in the future by creating new low-wage job categories, or simply by using threats and coercion to exact wage concessions in collective bargaining -- something which the HCECP report confirms Harvard has systematically done for the last ten years. The HCECP report wrongly casts its parity policy as an alternative to a living wage policy, but we firmly believe that the two must go together. We join the 8 members of the committee whose separate opinions called for parity plus a living wage policy.

The HCECP benefit recommendations should also be adopted with additions. The HCECP recommends that Harvard renegotiate the copayment levels for low-wage workers to make them more affordable, and that it implement a "benefits parity" policy requiring contractors to offer equivalent benefit options and subsidies. These are essential steps, but without more specification they leave the administration a great deal of room to evade the proposal's intent. We believe that Harvard should establish copayment levels of 0% to 5% for workers earning less than $30,000 per year. In addition, the HCECP did not address Harvard's restrictive hours requirements which it found are wrongly used to deny workers benefits. Currently, employees must work at least 16 hours per week to qualify for benefits, and the HCECP report confirms that workers' hours are often cut just below this level for the sole purpose of denying them benefits. Today, for instance, janitors' hours at the Graduate School of Education have been cut to just 12 per week to keep them ineligible for benefits. The only way to prevent this exploitative manipulation is to establish prohibitively low hours requirements for benefits eligibility: workers should be eligible for benefits if they work an average of 5 hours per week or 20 hours per month. The essential goal of such a policy is not to provide benefits to people working 5 hours a week, but to make sure that people are not working 5 hours a week against their wishes.

Unfortunately, the HCECP's recommendations on workers' right to organize unions can hardly even be called an important first step: they are shockingly inadequate. The HCECP valorizes collective bargaining in its report, but it is difficult to take those words seriously when the committee recommends almost nothing to reign in union-busting and protect workers' right to organize. It recommends only that Harvard permit union organizers on campus to speak with workers, and that if outsourced workers try to organize they should not be threatened with termination of their contract. This still leaves Harvard and its contractors ample room to violate workers' right to organize -- they can still hold captive-audience meetings to threaten and intimidate workers, they can threaten to call the INS to track immigrant workers, they can hire anti-union consultants to engineer union-busting campaigns, and they can retaliate formally and informally against organizing workers. An employer which respects collective bargaining is one which commits to a policy of neutrality during organizing drives -- it agrees not to run an anti-union campaign-and a card-check policy, meaning that it recognizes a union once a majority of workers have signed cards expressing their desire to unionize. These policies have been urged by Human Rights Watch and a federal commission under President Clinton chaired by HCECP senior advisor Prof. John Dunlop, and Harvard should adopt them.

Finally, we are concerned that the HCECP's implementation recommendations do not provide for sufficient community oversight, instead entrusting monitoring and enforcement to the same administration that it has found responsible for a decade of attacks on workers. Harvard's labor policies have slowly begun to improve over the last three years because workers, students, faculty, and the community have exposed administrative policies and demanded a voice in changing them. To now entrust oversight and implementation to the very administration which, according to HCECP research, has failed to implement even university-mandated improvements is utterly irresponsible. Permanent monitoring and oversight must be entrusted to a standing committee, not appointed by the administration, consisting of workers, students, faculty, and administrators.

The HCECP report contains critical first steps to acknowledge and remedy the injustices endured by Harvard's service-sector workers, and President Summers' final policy choice will be a decisive test of his administration. Summers has an opportunity to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to the well-being of workers who make our university work, and to the moral standards of our community. He can do this by immediately adopting the HCECP recommendations and supplementing them with the policies described here.