May 7, 2000

At Rally for Low-Paid Workers, Protesters Reject Harvard Plan


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 6 -- Three days after Harvard University released a long-awaited report on how it would improve compensation for its lowest-paid employees, several hundred students and their supporters, including the actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, denounced the report today at a rally on campus.

It was a noisy sign that despite what the administration called a "very progressive" program of education and benefits that would cost the university more than $2.3 million per year, the protesters were not backing down from their demand for a $10.25 per hour minimum wage for all university employees.

The debate has centered on the university's part-time, temporary and contract workers, some of whom make about $6.50 per hour.

Speaking from the granite steps of Harvard's columned Littauer Hall, in front of a banner that read "Workers can't eat prestige," Mr. Affleck and Mr. Damon told the crowd about growing up in Cambridge. They said the disparity between the wealth of Harvard's endowment and the pay of its blue-collar workers inspired them to write the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting." In the film, Mr. Damon played a janitor at another distinguished Cambridge school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The two saw both sides of university life. Mr. Damon, who attended Harvard, said he was embarrassed by his alma mater's pay rates. Mr. Affleck said his stepmother, who scrubbed toilets for $5.75 an hour, and his father, who handed out vacuums and brooms, were part of the "low-skilled" work force at Harvard.

"He was often treated brusquely and with little respect, although not by the students," Mr. Affleck said of his father.

He added, "This is honest work, and there is honor in doing it."

Students began organized demonstrations here in 1998, calling for a "living wage" for the university's workers. Other universities, including Stanford, Brown and Johns Hopkins, have started similar campaigns.

In response, a faculty committee spent 15 months studying Harvard's labor policies, finally deciding against raising take-home pay. Instead, in a proposal released on Wednesday, the committee recommended that the university give health benefits to employees who work at least 16 hours a week (the previous threshold was 20 hours) and that Harvard contract only with companies that subsidize health care for their workers. It also called for more continuing education and worker training programs.

The committee argued that pay scales were negotiated through employee unions.