Harvard students and faculty members enjoy the university's wealth every day, as we use its libraries and labs, visit its museums, and live in its houses. Yet few of the service workers at Harvard share in this wealth: many struggle to raise their families as the richest university in the world pays them poverty wages. In response to the growing problem of low-wage labor on campus, concerned students, workers, and faculty members have come together to form the Harvard Living Wage Campaign. We are making a single demand: anyone who works for Harvard, whether directly employed by the university or subcontracted to an outside company, must be paid a minimum of $10 per hour, adjustable for inflation.

The idea behind a living wage is that people who work in our community should be able to live decently and raise their families here. This requires a wage that takes into account the area-specific cost of living, as well as the basic expenses involved in supporting a family. Our figure of $10 per hour is taken directly from the living wage ordinance about to be approved by the city of Cambridge. It is the standard set by our community, one which Harvard can and should meet.

Taking a step back, it is truly shameful that a Living Wage Campaign is necessary at all at Harvard. At any time in the past 360 years, Harvard could have implemented decent payment standards on its own. Its failure to do so reflects a serious disregard for the well-being of its workers, and sends the clear message that Harvard values profit over human dignity. It is time for Harvard to seriously reevaluate its priorities; it must recognize that the well-being of its workers and their families is worth paying for.

Why $10 per hour?

We have taken our figure of $10 per hour directly from the living wage ordinance which is expected to be approved next Monday by the Cambridge City Council. This ordinance establishes $10 per hour as the minimum wage for all city workers, as well as for employees of companies which receive a considerable amount of city money.

According to the Eviction Free Zone, a community organization which was the driving force behind the Cambridge living wage ordinance, $10 per hour was chosen in part because it was the lowest wage paid any unionized city employee. As such, it was seen as a minimal standard for a living wage. In fact, several studies on the local cost of living show just how minimal this standard is. For instance, the National Low-Income Housing Commission estimates that a wage of over $15 per hour is necessary to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Boston area. Another study, published by Wider Opportunities for Women, found that in a family with two working adults and one child, each adult needed to earn $11.41 per hour to live in the Cambridge area in 1997. A single parent with one child needed to earn $17.47. In Boston, the corresponding figures were $10.08 and $15.28. These two-year-old figures are higher than the $10 per hour standard, and are by no means based on expectations of extravagant living. According to the authors of the study, "The Self-Sufficiency Standard is set at a level that is, on the one hand, not luxurious or even comfortable, and on the other hand, is not so low that it fails adequately to provide for a family. The Standard provides income sufficient to meet minimum nutrition standards, for example, and to obtain housing that would be neither substandard nor overcrowded. It does not, however, allow for longer-term needs such as retirement, purchase of major items such as a car, or emergency expenses."

The $10 per hour standard is particularly conservative in light of the skyrocketing rents in Cambridge. During the three years following the 1995 abolition of rent control in the city, rents for 14,500 formerly rent-controlled units jumped by 85 percent. According to figures compiled by the Rental Housing Association, the average apartment rent in Greater Boston now exceeds $1,050. Thus, even with a $10 per hour wage, a full-time worker would spend more than 60 percent of his or her pre-tax income on housing alone to live in an average apartment in Greater Boston.

These economic conditions are more than just impressive abstractions: they are the realities of life for Harvard workers. Jim, a UNICCO employee, has cleaned an academic building in the center of the Harvard campus for more than eight years. He makes $9.05 an hour and has some health benefits. Four years ago, Jim's Cambridge rent increased from $400 to $800 a month. He looked for another apartment in Cambridge but was unable to find one that he could afford. After fifty-eight years of living Cambridge, he was forced to move to another working-class suburb and commute to work. "I work three jobs just to get by. I'm fifty-eight years old and I can only afford to sleep four hours a night. I work full-time at Harvard, take the train home, grab a cup of coffee and then I go to work at the supermarket from 6 until midnight. On the weekends I work at a coffee shop, and I'm still in debt."

Low-Wage Labor at Harvard

In the absence of a living wage policy, Harvard's wages vary tremendously. While many employees are paid an acceptable wage, an increasing number are paid wages that are grossly inadequate. For instance, some dining hall workers at the Harvard Law School earn only $6 per hour, a wage that puts a parent with one child well below the federal poverty line. Because Harvard pays so little, many employees are forced to work two and even three jobs-as many as 80 hours per week-and still struggle to support their families.

Based on information gathered from the administration, campus unions, and individual workers, we estimate that there are currently 2000 people working on this campus who are paid less than $10 per hour. These workers fall into three categories:

  1. Full-time employees. The Harvard administration has acknowledged that it pays 358 full-time employees less than $10 per hour.

  2. Casual employees. Administrators have told us that approximately 650 so-called "casual" employees earn less than $10 per hour. These are people who supposedly work at Harvard part-time, or on a temporary basis. In reality, many casuals have worked at Harvard for as many as 20 years, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Nonetheless, because of their status as casuals, they are ineligible for union membership, typically receive no benefits, enjoy no job security, and are often inadequately paid.

  3. Subcontracted employees. Harvard has not released the number of subcontracted workers it employs, but has told us that it establishes contracts with nearly 9000 firms annually, and maintains ongoing relationships with roughly 180 firms. Major employers in this category include Marriott/Sodhexo, which provides dining services for the Law School, the Kennedy School, and the Business School, among other locations; the security company Security Systems Incorporated; White Glove, a janitorial contractor; and UNICCO, another janitorial company. Like casual workers, subcontracted employees are vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation. By our best estimates, they may comprise the largest category of underpaid workers at Harvard.

It should be noted that many services provided by private subcontracted firms were once the responsibility of Harvard employees. For example, non-union SSI guards now work in areas that used to be patrolled by unionized Harvard guards; non-union Marriott/Sodhexo workers prepare food in kitchens once run by unionized Harvard dining service workers. In each case, the wages and benefits of the non-union workers are significantly lower than those of workers directly employed by Harvard. In fact, it is mainly by paying much lower wages that private contractors make it "cost-effective" for Harvard to use their services. The savings Harvard realizes through the use of these companies come at the expense of unorganized workers who are forced to work long hours to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families.

A comparison of wages and benefits between Harvard dining service workers, represented by HERE Local 26, and non-union workers with Marriott/Sodhexo highlights the extent to which certain workers on the Harvard campus are paid less and receive fewer benefits than others performing identical tasks. While Marriott/Sodhexo dining service employees serving the Law School and the Kennedy School are usually paid between $6 and $8/hour and often lack health benefits, the College's dining service workers earn as much as $15.85 per hour and receive health benefits.

The Economics of a Living Wage

Establishing a living wage at Harvard would have significant economic impacts. Most importantly, it would introduce a community voice in the determination of wages and corporate policies. A Harvard living wage policy would ensure that the jobs Harvard creates will, at a minimum, provide wages that are sufficient to live on, as determined by this community. Policies on compensation would reflect not only managerial prerogatives, but input from all the stakeholders--students, employees, and faculty members.

A living wage that binds for all workers at Harvard-whether directly employed by the university or by its subcontractors-would have a lasting impact on labor relations on this campus. Specifically, it would increase job stability for both people who would be directly impacted by the policy, as well as those currently earning more than ten dollars an hour. Such outcomes are due to the effect that a living wage policy would have on the practice of outsourcing. In recent years, corporate restructuring across America has taken advantage of weakened power of workers and unions to facilitate outsourcing of jobs to outside contractors. Often, these jobs are part-time, temporary, provide no benefits, and effectively bar employees from having any voice at the workplace. Harvard is no exception to the logic of cost cutting at the expense of the livelihoods of working Americans. Taking advantage of legal and institutional loopholes, on many occasions this university has engaged in such "corporate shielding."

A simple example illustrates the incentives to employers for outsourcing. If organized Harvard employees feel that Harvard is unfairly denying them a raise, they have the recourse to strike. Of course, Harvard could get away with hiring strikebreakers, but this does impose additional costs. Yet, if those same employees working at Harvard were officially employed by a subcontractor, Harvard could switch to another outside contractor without incurring any additional costs. Intermediating through an outside contractor effectively bars the employees from exercising their rights at the workplace. By funneling jobs to the sectors where workers are least able to voice their demands, Harvard can bypass the legal and institutional safeguards which are in place to protect employees.

Outsourcing does not only affect those employees who actually lose their jobs. In recent years, Harvard has repeatedly wielded the threat to outsource in an attempt to wrest wage and benefits concession from workers employed directly by the university. A notable case is that of the Harvard security guards, who have filed a complaint against the university with the National Labor Relations Board because of the administration's refusal to bargain in good faith. In fact, although the security guards currently make above ten dollars an hour, the threat to outsource has been used in an attempt to drive their hourly wage below nine dollars. A living wage policy significantly reduces the ever-present threat faced by many Harvard employees that outsourcing will either destroy their jobs or substantially downgrade them. Properly implemented, it refuses to distinguish between Harvard workers on the basis of their official employer. In this way, a living wage at Harvard would have a spillover effect that would enhance the job security not only of those who are being paid poverty wages today, but of those who will be threatened with them tomorrow. For this reason, the Living Wage Campaign has received support not only from the many unorganized employees who have been contacted, but also from all the Harvard unions for whom these threats loom heavy in the horizon.

Securing a living wage at Harvard would also have beneficial impacts on other workers in the area. Harvard is the largest employer in Cambridge, and a rise in renumerations here would tend to bolster wages in the local labor market. By setting standards, it would make it difficult for other employers to pay substantially less than its wage level without facing pressure from its employees and the community at large. Some people trained in orthodox economic doctrines might claim that such an effort to bolster wages above "natural" levels as determined by the market would invariably lead to job losses. However, empirical research and common sense dictate otherwise. Studies of living wage ordinances throughout the country have found no evidence of resulting job loss. Moreover, a safe reading of the empirical economic literature on minimum wage policies shows that there is little evidence of any adverse effect of minimum wage regulations on employment.

The Feasibility of a Living Wage

There is no question that Harvard can afford to implement a living wage policy: by liberal estimates, such a policy would increase the university's labor costs by less than two percent. The more frequently-heard concern about "feasibility" is the claim that Harvard can not force its subcontractors to pay a living wage. This is not true. Currently, Harvard negotiates contracts with its janitorial subcontractors through SEIU Local 254. In negotiations, the university and the union establish a "master contract," which sets base standards for wages and benefits of all workers represented by the union. After the master contract has been agreed upon, they create a "site contract," which contains provisions specific to Harvard workers. The site contract establishes standards superior to those guaranteed in the master contract. It is the institutional mechanism through which Harvard can force its subcontractors to pay decent wages. Thus, the only obstruction to paying subcontracted workers a living wage is Harvard's refusal to demand it in negotiations.


The human suffering that this university brings upon many of its workers is needless and intolerable. No working family should live in poverty and deprivation, nor should they be forced to balance endlessly on the brink of economic disaster. Yet, in the absence of a living wage policy, many Harvard workers and their families face just these circumstances. Our community can no longer accommodate this injustice.

A living wage policy reflects a commitment to human dignity, a respect for the work that enables the university to function, and an acknowledgment that people do have the right to a decent standard of living. These are hardly radical ideas. In demanding a living wage, we ask Harvard to treat its workers as human beings, not as commodities. We ask Harvard to recognize that the lives of the people it employs are more important than nickels and dimes. We ask Harvard to sincerely commit itself to meeting the human needs in its community.