Six Workers’ Views
We include here the opinions and experiences of six workers, directly transcribed from interviews conducted in 1999. We do so because we feel that workers’ voices are necessary to this discussion, and are too often ignored. Not a single worker was included on the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies, and the only worker who spoke with the committee members was brought by a member of our campaign to do so; the committee and the administration made no effort to seek out or speak to workers. Interestingly, both the Provost and President have told us that they believe the committee and its recommendations reflected the views of our entire community.
Tony, Book Stockroom Employee:
"That's what's sad about America. An average all-American person can't survive. I mean, a regular person. I don't want to go back to making $5.25/hour. The jobs out there are either really technical, highly skilled, or really, really down in the bottom of the barrel—McDonald’s jobs and CVS jobs.
"Nowadays, my kind of labor's almost considered minute, and below standards. Like you could work at a place 25 years ago, build yourself up, and you could say, 'I'm a janitor. I've been here for 25 years. I make $16/hour.' You can't do that anymore. Hard work, honesty and reliability really doesn't stand for shit anymore. And those are three of the things I have. America's not designed that way any more. It's designed like you work for a few months, 3 months, 5 months, we terminate you, we hire you temporarily.
"You want to know about regular working-stiffs? You want to know what kind of life I lived for 23 years working in that place? Things in the workplace now are so much different than they were years ago. It's kind of a scared feeling and an unstable feeling in the work force now. It used to be a better place to work, emotionally. My heart really isn't in it anymore, if you know what I mean.
"I sometimes think they'd like to replace me with a monkey making $5.25/hour. And you know something: they probably could. Yeah, someone can do my job, anyone can do my job. It takes no real skill. In 3 months, someone could know what they're doing. No one stays at a job more than a year these days. They design it so it's not worth it. They make you so miserable, that you never even last in a place a year to get a week's vacation. Its about saving money. I cost them a lot of money. My medical plan is about $6/week. 39 paid days off a year—4 weeks’ vacation, 3 personal days, and 6 sick days. They could hire some kid, and not pay his insurance unless of course he decides to stay for more than 6 months. It would be really, really stupid for me to quit because I'll never get 4 weeks’ vacation again. Took me 10 years to get that.
"I can't believe that nationwide the poverty level for a family of three is $12,000 a year. If I was making $12,000 a year, I'd be miserable. And that's myself—I have no children, I'm not married, I don't own a home. How does a family of three live on $12,000? Where do they come up with these numbers? And I know tons and tons of people without health insurance plans. People just go without them because they can't afford them. It's funny the way America is.
"I kind of feel like a leftover in Cambridge. Like, I used to know a lot of people who hung out here, worked here, and for one reason or another, they're not around anymore. Like I kind of feel like the last man on earth. My friend was saying, 'You ever get the feeling you just don't belong here anymore?’
"I grew up in Arlington. Arlington public high. No one in my family was ever a student, except one cousin that's a doctor and he's a lawyer and he's this and he's that, and he went to Yale, and he's very, very successful. Whether that makes him happy I don't know. I just know he's the only one in our family that went to a major Ivy league school. I’m not going to get rich working here, but, to be honest with you, who wants to be rich? Seriously. I mean, you know, those people are miserable too. They got the same headaches, they got the same problems at home. People are people, you know what I mean? It's good to talk about this. It's like somebody actually wants to talk to me. I feel important. I feel like I matter."
Shaun, Security Guard:
"If they try to fire us or try something big, it’ll be in June when you guys are gone for the summer. They're waiting for us to retire or die off so they can out-source our jobs to a cheaper, private company. There's a private guard company out there that pays $8.22/hour, has no sick time, but earns vacation, retirement and medical benefits. They can use their vacation for sick time, which I think is kind of ironic, that they use their vacation time in the hospital.
"It's not exactly bad times for Harvard. When I came here, they had $4.3 billion in the endowment, and they now have $11.4 billion. But what about the quality of life for the people? That's what concerns me. They don't seem to care how you live. Sometimes you feel like you’re at the bottom rung of the food chain, but they don't give a shit.
"That new gym at the Business school—no one can use that gym except Business school people. That's ludicrous! Don't we all belong to a community? That provides functions and services to its members? It's a shame that people at the top of this corporate level don't think enough about human beings. We're all part of this family, whether they like it or not. What about respecting the people that work for you?
"Some students remember you and they care. And then there's ones you'd like to forget, like the rich snobs that offer you fifty bucks to park here or there. Harvard-Yale games have got to be the worst bunch of people you'll ever deal with—intoxicated educated people! [Laughs]. 'Do you know who I am?' they ask. If I had a buck from everyone who told me that I wouldn't have to work here.
"My son is now out of college, thank god. But I still got to live. If I were living in Cambridge or Somerville—with the college community—I couldn't afford to live. They're trying to charge $850 for a studio on Prescott Street. So what do you do? You got to live, but when you're going on five years without a raise it's kind of tough. You can barely afford to pay for your child's education with that. My son went down to Rhode Island, and it was thirty-something thousand dollars.
"When I first came here 15 years ago Harvard showed that they cared. But since Rudenstine's come, they've showed they're only a business that wants to raise money. And are they benefiting anybody with the money they've raised? I don't see anybody but themselves. They're more concerned about money than about education. Human beings mean something. This University's saying, 'we don't care if you've been here fifteen years or thirty years—we don't give a shit.' They almost don't want to see you be here any substantial period of time so they don't have to absorb any cost when you retire. They're trying to cut our sick days and holiday time, and disability. We can't do that. How would you live? I make $12/hour. How do you live?"
Antonio, Dish Washer:
"I have perfect attendance almost every year. I never call sick. Maybe 1 or 2 times. I do my job right. I've been employee of the year twice. Nobody bothers me because they respect me. I'm sick sometimes, but I never miss work. Like one day, I was working on my house and I smashed my fingers, they were almost flat, and I came the same day to work here. I felt such pain that day. I did not even go to the doctor. You see now, the bone is still smashed.
"I have been working here eight years. Dishes seemed like an easy thing. Dish-washing is a job. You don't need to think to do that. Sometimes, you know, I enjoy to do it. I love to do it. Because you know, I don't have a skill for a particular job. So this job is easy to do. You don't need training. You know, I think I do dish-washing the way I do carpentry. I like to do it the right way. Two part-time people work with me. The dining hall works a lot of part-time people. I'm OK. I'm happy working at Harvard. I have no choice anyways. I have no diploma, nothing, so actually I'm happy. The only problem is the summertime. It's hard to find work.
"I've got some hobbies I use to relax. I have a big coin and stamp collection. Some are very expensive. And I do carpentry, too. I make all kinds of things. I even made two violins. I made the bow for them too. I didn't want to buy the bow from the market—I wanted it to be all mine. I can play it. I make so many things, I don't even have a room to put them all in. Carpentry is like poetry, or like writing stories. You've got to have fantasy and patience. Some people use machines, the special tools like the professionals, but handmade is different. I don't have many tools. I like to saw by hand. That's why I don't care how long it takes me. I want to show what I've got inside me. I don't care if someone says I'm good at it or not—it makes me happy.
"I used to live in Cambridge, but in '96 I had to move to Watertown. I now have four children. My younger daughter, Jodie, she's handicapped. My older daughter, Elizabeth, she applied once to go to school here, but she went to MIT. I don't want to say it, but I think she was supposed to get accepted here, but something happened. My daughter, she had 1400 SATs. She had a 95% average in math. She was accepted everywhere she applied except here. Still I think maybe it's because I'm her father, I think something went wrong. Anyway, I'm happy, she's happy. She graduated MIT, she works now as a consultant in Davis Square. Yeah, I'm happy because my father was pretty poor."
Louis, Mail Room Employee:
"Everybody has felt the effects of downsizing. They wouldn't call it that here, but that's exactly what has happened; people who have quit or have been fired have not been replaced and everybody's working at breakneck speed, twice as fast, to do twice as much work with half as many people. And there probably will be more downsizing, more cuts. I just don't know how secure my job is. Right now I'm totally in doubt.
"We need the adequate number of people. I know that employers are trying to save money. But I really do think I'm worth more money. They burn people out, their resistance gets low, they get sick, and then they're out, and there's even fewer staff. Sick in both senses—you're sick mentally and your resistance goes down, and then the common cold knocks you out.
"Everyone in my family works hard—we just work hard. And it's not always about the money—it's about fulfillment, it's about doing your honest day's work to provide for your family, but since I need more money I do things on the side, like I have a small painting business which I run from my home, and you know, I like it. I feel some sense of accomplishment because that's something I control.
"I went to school at U Conn and I came within one year of graduation, and then I had to drop out of school because of money. Then I got married, I met my wife through church, and the kids started coming and it became really hard to go back to school, so now I'm trying to do it slowly. I've taken about six classes so far at the Extension School. I would like at some point to get a degree from here. People should do things like that because when you're stressed out, you need to do something. For some people it's exercise; for me staying busy is it. But I have three kids—eight, five and four years old—and I know that they need me around too and I try to be there as much as I can for them.
"I have always been a lover of knowledge. I don't go anywhere unless I have at least one book. It really helps me cope. Knowledge allows you to better reason with people or sympathize with people when they're going through different things. But that has probably hurt me on my job, because its not an environment where you really have time to feel for people. You know, you get the job done, in and out. This is a whole different era we’re in. It's mechanized. People are disposable. You plug in the man and plug him out when you don't need him. I think many people are not optimistic about their future. And because they're not, they're not willing to give 100%. They're not willing to be committed to something that's not committed to them. People just don't feel like they're part of the organization. When things like that happen, you have a lot of work to bring it back."
David, Museum Guard:
"To give us a living wage with decent benefits would not break the University and it would also satisfy the philosophical and moral principles that Harvard tells everybody they stand for and which they negate and turn into a lot of hypocrisy by the way they treat us. What they teach at the Harvard Business School is to pay workers the economic bottom line. That bottom line view of things, that social Darwinism, is a bunch of malarkey to me. It's an excuse for what is essentially vicious behavior by people who believe in capitalism and nothing else. I see those kinds of wages as a vicious, vicious action towards other human beings that you have power over. Maybe they can do anything they want, but that don’t make it right.
"There are things about Harvard that are really fine and beautiful things that are even noble. There are professors here like Stephen Gould and John Womack who are noble people. My wife got both her degrees from Harvard despite the fact that she didn’t have no damn money. But she was smart and Harvard saw to it that she was able to come here and get an education based on the fact that she had the brain to do it, and that is a great thing. My wife wanted me to tell you that she never would have had Chinese food if she hadn’t come to Harvard.
"Harvard constantly speaks of humanistic ideals and the truth and morals, and those ideals are fundamentally important, but when it comes to dealing with the workers in my union, those things are set aside for economic convenience. I think anybody who went to this university would be really pissed off if they realized, how am I supposed to carry forward any of these humane and moral truths if certain administrators set aside all of those very profound moral ideas in order to squeeze the last drop of blood out of a group of essentially defenseless workers?
"They want to outsource all the security jobs to the Pinkertons or to some other private security agency. Harvard will get them guys to work for nothing. They could have Pinkertons in there tomorrow and pay them $6.00 an hour with no benefits. But Pinkertons won’t care about the art; they'll get their really lame paycheck and they'll go home and they won’t have any kind of connection to it. If Harvard wants workers who care about their jobs, they need to treat us better than they are now, not worse. I come from a family of working people, and I cannot stand here and say to Harvard, 'why yes, two plus two is five.' I can’t do that, because if I did, it would mean that I would have to spit in the face of my entire life’s experience, and I’m not going to. I think every guard should be paid at least $15 an hour with medical benefits, ten paid sick days a year, and we should have staff IDs with access to the gym and the libraries so that we could check books out to educate ourselves about the art we guard. I have educated myself at some expense about the art I guard by going to various used bookstores.
"We’ve asked for paid sick days. Paid sick days are pretty common anywhere in America. I had gout for months and I had to work because I don’t have no damn paid sick days. And gout is wicked painful, man. We go to work in the museums ill on a regular basis. If someone’s sick and they don’t show up to punch in, their family suffers, and that is a very callous thing. And I get no medical benefits because I work part time. I've never gotten a raise, and what Harvard has offered in terms of raises is not just low; it’s insulting. They offered us 75 cents an hour over four years, which would only bring me up to $8.96 an hour. Yale pays $14 an hour for their museum guards.
"I didn’t go to Harvard, but I know if you are a man without honor you are nothing. To think that all people should have a fair and equal shake in life is not just empty rhetoric, and when I see people in power treat powerless people with an absolute disregard for their humanity, that is insulting, it is unfair, and it is a scandal that reflects disrepute on the institution. The people who tell us we should work for nothing don’t seem to question the amount of money they make. The cost of living in this area is so high that the city of Cambridge now pays a minimum wage of $10 an hour and is demanding that Harvard do the same, but Harvard insists on paying substantially less.
"It's nothing I think about, but if you have some guy who’s making a poor wage, and he’s standing there next to a painting that’s worth $70 million, and he’s got a wife and kids at home who are eating macaroni and cheese, one day that guy might look at that painting and think, 'man, that's my ticket out of here.' It is not what you do to the most powerful person; it is how you treat the least powerful people that determines whether you have honor. If you treat the weakest people decently, then your name will live forever. If you treat them badly, history will spit on you and rightly so. Rudenstine might not know what's going on, but if he does then he should stand up and lead by example by doing the things that he says this university stands for."
Neil, Law School Custodian:
"I clean 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at M.I.T. and then 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Harvard. I've been cleaning at Harvard about 5 years now. I came to Cambridge from Barbados in ‘83, and ever since I first come here, I was always working two full-time jobs, 80 hours a week. I always do cleaning, always liked cleaning. The thing lots of work places try to do now is they try to get away from paying a lot of full-time workers. They see if they can cut the staff in half and get the same quantity of work done, and then they want part-time people, because then they don’t have to pay the benefits. That’s just like what Harvard do.
"I leave my house at about 6:30 in the morning every weekday, and I don’t get back until 10:30 at night, so that’s a lot of time from home. Sometimes it’s not enough sleep. Depends on how the body feels. In the morning, your body wants to sleep but your mind tells you, you got to go, you got to go. I have three kids—4, 9, and 21. On the weekends, I do spend a lot of time with my kids. I try not to give to myself, to improve my kids.
"Harvard is great as far as school is concerned, but in our department, it’s not great for working. We work for a company—Harvard is a company. Sometimes a name fools a lot of people. When you say Harvard or MIT, you have a great name, but when you see the environment and you see what’s going on, you’re not happy just to have a good name. When people hear you’re working at Harvard, they think you get a lot of money because it’s a big college. But as far as I’m concerned, the working environment is bad. Right now, one guy’s out sick, nearly seven weeks and he didn’t get a paycheck yet. Every day they tell him, it’s in the mail. How long will it take a paycheck to go from one part of Cambridge to another? You have to work with the worker to make him happy in the environment he’s working.
"You have people who don’t want to talk because they scared to lose their job, or scared the supervisor is going to put more work on them. And you get treated sometimes different depending on where you come from. The boss is not going to say, because you from Haiti, I don’t like you. I give you more work, but his actions speak louder than words. The money here in Cambridge is better than in Barbados, but I didn’t really come here for the money. I come here because my family lives in this country. My grandfather lived in this country from the time he was a boy, so he sent for my mother and she brought me here. I used to live in Cambridge with my grandfather, but now I live in Malden.
"It’s better at MIT, because MIT is a better environment than Harvard. Sometimes my supervisor here talks to me, like we were talking about how to clean this desk, and I tell him so and so and he said, If you don’t like it, you can go home, meaning to quit. He just talk down to me, so sometimes I get so mad. MIT pays better than Harvard. Other places for part-time pay more money than Harvard. Harvard needs to pay a little bit more money, because they want the work done nice and clean. No specks. As I say, I don’t mind that, but pay me something to do that.
"I haven’t gotten a good raise since I’ve been at Harvard. I still don’t get $10/hour. They freeze our raises for three years. You never get enough money, but you try to live with that, and you try to make ends meet. I put my money together with my wife to pay the bills. But other guys whose wives don’t work or who don’t make a good salary at their other job, I know they have a hard time. Sometimes they don’t have money to buy groceries. I know one individual that works here—sometimes he can’t buy any meat because he’s back on his rent. But we try to strive to be thankful. We can’t do no more."