Some Reflections on the Living Wage Sit-in

Richard G. Heck, Jr.
Professor of Philosophy
Harvard University

26 April 2001

As I write, the sit-in is in its ninth day. And every day, it seems, more and more people, be they students, faculty, staff, city residents, public officials, or union leaders, come out to support the sitters. The sit-in has been a success beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Consciousness has been raised. Many of us who were previously passive sympathizers have become active supporters. Over three hundred faculty have signed an open letter demanding a Living Wage for all Harvard workers. Whole departments are endorsing the Campaign. I predict that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a whole will eventually also do so. (A majority, or nearly so, have already signed the letter.) Victory shall be ours. It is only a matter of time.

There has been a lot of talk, recently, about the tactics of the sitters. The sit-in has been labeled "coercive" by the Administration. Now, first of all, to make such a claim is fundamentally to misunderstand the purpose of this sort of action. Are the sitters, and we who are supporting them, trying to coerce the Administration? Are they, and we, trying to force the Adminstration to do something against its will? Perhaps. (It would be nice to think we had that sort of power.) But what the sitters, and we who are supporting them, are really trying to force the Administration to do isn't to enact a Living Wage policy. That is not, I think, our immediate goal. Our immediate goal, rather, is more simple: We want to force the Adminstration to acknowledge the moral seriousness of the existing situation. That, indeed, is (or should be) the fundamental purpose of any act of civil disobedience: To give voice to one's deepest moral convictions and, by doing so, to force everyone, including those in positions of power, to confront a moral question by making the depth of one's own moral commitment obvious for all to see. I think it would be hard to overstate how great a debt of gratitude we owe the sitters for what they have done for us. By sacrificing the comforts and conveniences of their day-to-day lives (can you imagine living in the conference rooms of Mass Hall for over a week?), they have forced the issue: All of us must now decide on which side we wish to be counted. I know where I stand.

What is that moral question? It is, as in all great struggles, actually very simple. It is: Is it fair, or just, for the University to pay some of its employees, some of our fellow workers, so little money that, though they work full-time, performing services essential to the operation of this great University, nonetheless they live in poverty? Is it fair, or just, for the University to pay some of its employees, some of our fellow workers, so little money that they must work two full-time jobs simply to provide the basics for their families? I for one firmly believe that no-one can honestly examine h'er conscience (assuming of course that s'he has one) and come to any answer other than that it is unfair, unjust, and immoral for the University to treat our fellow workers this way.

Surely we can all agree that there is some amount of money less than which it would be morally impermissible for the University to pay its employees. Surely there is some amount of money less than which it could not pay its employees without exploiting them, taking advantage of their need to work to survive. What is that amount? A proposal has been made: It is $10.25 an hour, with benefits.1 (Or better, it is whatever amount is necessary for a full-time worker not to live in poverty: By that measure, $10.25 an hour is really too little.) It would seem the Administration disagrees. It would seem that they think that it is OK, and fair, and just for them to pay our fellow workers too little to provide for their families. If so, why don't they have the courage to stand up and say so? Why won't President Rudenstine come out to one of the rallies and say to the very workers whom he forces to live in poverty, say right to their faces, that he is sorry, but it's just not his problem? Why won't he tell them, to their faces, that he can not, or that he will not, do anything to help them? That their livelihoods simply are not his concern? Why doesn't he tell their children that he's sorry they're hungry? or that he's sorry their parents have to choose between clothing them and seeing them, because they can only clothe them if they work fourteen hour days? but that, you see, again, it's just not his problem? I think it's pretty damn obvious why not.

The Adminstration so far, in their public statements, appear to be morally blind, utterly failing even to address the profound moral questions at issue here. Instead, they try to distract us. The PSLM's tactics are "coercive". There are issues of "collective bargaining". Hogwash. Or it's not 2000 workers that aren't paid a Living Wage, but just 403. Hogwash again. But what would it matter anyway? I guess that it's less bad to pay 403 workers poverty wages than it is to pay 2000 workers poverty wages. But it's still pretty damn bad. Excuse me, then, if I fail to see the point of this particular argument.

And again, as you most surely know by now, the President appointed a committee in April 1999 and charged them with studying Harvard's treatment of its employees with an eye to determining, among other things, whether that treatment is fair. The Committee notes that they were charged with investigating this moral question right in its report. But when one reads the report, what does one find? One finds statements like this one: "...Harvard pays its employees fairly as compared with other local employers".2 That, however, was not the question. The question was whether Harvard pays its employees fairly, whether it treats them justly. And the simple fact is that the Mills Committee addresses these questions nowhere in its entire report! (That is unsurprising, actually, since the members of the Committee were carefully chosen with an eye to securing this outcome.) And that means that they, like the Administration, have simply missed the point.

There are other groups who have similarly missed the point, for example, a small group who appeared at the noon rally today with signs saying things like "Against Coercion" or "PSLM Go Home". I found myself reacting to them with anger, and it was clear that I was not the only one. I found that reaction itself puzzling. Why was I so angry? Not because I disagree profoundly with them. I've had many civil discussions with people with whom I disagree profoundly on this very issue, people I respect. It wasn't even that they tried to push their way past me, bumped into me, and even knocked one person next to me into the bushes on his butt. No. It was, I finally realized, their disingenousness and cowardice that angered me. Did these contrarians with their pathetic signs really expect anyone to believe that they were there because they disagreed with the PSLM's tactics?.3 Of course not. So why aren't they holding signs that say "Poverty Wages Now!" or "Let Them Eat Cake!"? Why don't they stand up and oppose the sitters on the moral question that is really at issue here? I think it's obvious why they won't do so: Because they know they can't win; because they know that, once people start asking the question whether it is fair and just and moral for Harvard to pay its employees, our fellow workers, so little money that, though they work full-time, they still live in poverty, victory is already ours. Their only hope, they know, is to stop people from asking that question. That is why they oppose the sitters' tactics: Because the sitters are indeed forcing people to ask that question.

Now let me address one further matter. A sign, hanging from the top floor of Mass Hall, says:

That sign's really started to piss me off. But it's not just that sign. Similar accusations are in the air everywhere. We are unpatriotic. We are unfaithful to Harvard. Or our actions, and those of the sitters, are "incompatible with the principles of free exchange and mutual respect that are at the heart of an academic community".4 (Maybe, by the way, if the Administration would act a bit more like a University and a bit less like it was running a multi-national Corporation, that statement wouldn't seem so ludicrious. As it is: Baloney.)

I remember the last time someone called me a "pinko", the last time someone questioned my patriotism as I stood up to oppose injustice.5 It was at a rally not unlike those now taking place outside Mass Hall. It was in 1985, during my graduation at Duke University. I, and hundreds of my fellow students, were protesting Duke's refusal to divest itself of its holdings in companies doing business in then apartheid South Africa. Man, are there similarities. They said they'd listened to us. They said they'd considered our arguments. They said they'd made their decision and that we were just a bunch of sore losers. They said that, in protesting as we were, we were sacrificing dialogue and persuasion for brow-beating and coercion. But they were wrong then, and the Harvard Administration is similarly wrong now. And we won then, just like we are going to win now.

About that same time, a bunch of students erected a tent city in the Yard here at Harvard and lived out there for months to protest Harvard's investments in apartheid South Africa. They were surely called "pinkos" too. The hundreds of brave students, faculty, and staff, who marched and chanted, and occupied University Hall (the last sit-in at Harvard) to try to bring an end to the War in Vietnam, and Harvard's complicity in it, I'm sure they were called "pinkos". (And I'm absolutely sure the then Administration was saying that their actions too were "incompatible with the principles...of an academic community".) The thousands of people who stood up, sat down, and even died, to help bring an end to state-sponsored racial discrimination in this country, I know they were called "pinkos", even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself.

Well then. if what that sign's saying is that we are heirs to that tradition.... If what that sign's doing is lumping us with Nelson Mandela, and Dr. King, and the thousands upon thousands of others who have stood up, or sat down, to oppose injustice.... If that sign's including us in the company of generations of brave and morally courageous people who have refused to get out of the way or to shut up just because people in positions of power have come to find their pleas tiresome or inconvenient.... Then yes, that's exactly who we are, and I for one am damn proud to be included in that company. Blessed indeed are we who are persecuted for righteousness' sake!

And since that is the tradition to which we are heirs, let me offer here a prayer to the very same God whose love of justice empowered Dr. King and sustained President Mandela during his long wait for freedom.

Almighty God. You call upon us to love one another as you have loved us. To watch out for one another as you watch out for us. Those who are inside, and those of us who are outside, are struggling now to bring peace and justice to our little corner of your world. Look with favor upon our humble efforts. Protect and nourish us as we continue our work. Grant wisdom and strength to us and to those in positions of power to whom we make our appeal. And grant us the faith and determination to travel what will surely be a long road. With your help, surely we will end the Twin Scandals of poverty and the unavailability of basic health care, not just for our fellow workers, but for thousands of Americans like them. Blessed indeed are we who mourn: Surely we shall be comforted. Blessed indeed are we who hunger and thirst for righteousness: Surely we shall be satisfied. Amen.

Amen indeed.

1There's a red herring here: Is $10.25 an hour some kind of magic number? Would $10.24 an hour be unfair? What about $10.23? Etc.? We philosophers are very familiar with that kind of argument: It's specious through and through. We ask for a "minimum livable wage" not because we think there's a magic number, but because without one there are nothing but hard cases. That's what justifies the federal minimum wage, and it's what justifies the voting age, and the drinking age, and all other such partly arbitrary figures. Back to text.

2Mills Committee Report, p. 22 of the full text. Back to text.

3That is not to say that one couldn't oppose the sit-in on that ground. Some faculty, even some very close friends of mind, have done so, though they support the PSLM's goal of a Living Wage. I disagree with these colleagues, but respect their views. I have no such respect for the cowards who appeared at the rally today. Back to text.

4Statement from President Rudenstine, 4/23/01. Back to text.

5The young may not know what a hateful word "pinko" can be. (Oh, and actually, the last time was during the Gulf War, when an elderly gentleman did so, just after he'd accused me of being a draft dodger. But he was obviously confused, so I won't count that one. Back to text.