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A Brief History of the Living Wage Debate at Harvard

Fall 1998 Students in Harvard’s Progressive Student Labor Movement plan a living wage campaign, designed to bring the gains of Cambridge’s living wage ordinance — at the time still pending approval — to the city’s largest employer. The Campaign begins by interviewing workers and unions, and disseminating information to students and the larger community.

Sept. 1998 Boston amends its living wage ordinance. The city now guarantees a living wage of $8.43 an hour to employees working on service contracts for the city.

Feb. 1999 The Living Wage Campaign sends a letter to Harvard President Neil Rudenstine and Provost Harvey Fineberg requesting a meeting to discuss the idea of implementing a living wage policy at Harvard. Rudenstine and Fineberg do not respond, but instead instruct Director of Labor Relations Kim Roberts to send the Campaign a letter; she does not respond to the request for a meeting, but simply writes that Harvard’s wages and benefits were fair.

The Harvard Living Wage Campaign holds its first rally, attracting a crowd of 200 and featuring students, faculty, representatives from local unions, and Howard Zinn. Marchers go to Massachusetts Hall in hopes of setting up a meeting with Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine or Provost Harvey Fineberg. The University responds by barring the doors of Massachusetts Hall, and the Living Wage Campaign leaves a note.

March 1999 Ten members of the Living Wage Campaign walk onstage in a moment of transition during a Junior Parents Weekend welcoming address delivered by Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis. They deliver a five-minute prepared speech about low-wage labor at Harvard, to the audience’s applause. Lewis cancels the remainder of the event.

The Living Wage Campaign works with Harvard Students Against Sweatshops and the Harvard Coalition Against Sexual Violence to organize the 400-person Rally For Justice. (The Campaign holds many rallies from this point on, which are not all listed here. To date, the campaign has organized at least a dozen large public demonstrations for a living wage.)

The Cambridge City Council passes a resolution urging Harvard to adopt a living wage, as recommended by the Harvard Living Wage Campaign.

President Rudenstine announces that he and Provost Harvey Fineberg will "appoint a special task force of faculty to review the living wage." Rudenstine subsequently explains that the Living Wage Campaign "provided an important impetus" for this decision.

April 1999 The Campaign holds demonstrations with the Harvard University Security, Parking, Museum Guards Union to demand a fair contract with a living wage. The guards had been working for over four years without a contract, and filed an NLRB complaint against Harvard in 1999.

The Living Wage Campaign pre-empts Rudenstine’s opening remarks at a meeting for admitted students and presents him with an award for "Worst Employer in Boston," again to the audience’s applause.

May 1999 The Cambridge City Council passes the city living wage ordinance, establishing a living wage of $10 per hour, adjustable for inflation, for city workers and employees of firms with large city contracts. In the same month, the Board of Aldermen of Somerville (immediately north of Cambridge) unanimously passes a living wage of $8.23 an hour for its direct and subcontracted employees.

115 Harvard faculty members endorse the Living Wage Campaign.

The Living Wage Campaign charters an airplane to fly over commencement pulling a banner that reads, "HARVARD NEEDS A LIVING WAGE." PSLM and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence organize a walk-out and Counter-Commencement during the afternoon ceremonies, in protest against Harvard’s choice of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as speaker.

Summer 1999 Several Living Wage Campaign members remain in Cambridge and use grant money to continue working for a living wage. They organize over 100 alumni and alumnae to pledge never to give money to Harvard until the university implements a living wage. 200 community members attend a rally that features a speech by Julian Bond, Chairman of the Board of the NAACP.

All but roughly 25 Harvard security guards accept buy-out packages in the closing of contract negotiations. They feel they had been strong-armed into an inadequate contract, and that their treatment over the past five years had been so disrespectful that they would rather leave than remain at Harvard. Many are re-hired through subcontracting companies to perform the same jobs.

Harvard admits that it has committed systematic abuses of the casual payroll, keeping hundreds of workers classified as "casual" even though they worked for as many as ten years and, in some cases, 40 hours a week or more. Through an agreement with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, the university promises to convert over 200 casual jobs to full-time jobs on October 12.

October 1999 The University announces that its Capital Campaign has reached its $2.1 billion goal over two months ahead of schedule. By its official end on December 31, the campaign will have raised $2.6 billion.

Oct.-Nov. 1999 The Living Wage Campaign holds public demonstrations in cooperation with SEIU 254, the union which represents Harvard’s janitors. The union was in the midst of contract negotiations and was demanding a living wage. Even with public pressure and media coverage, the university’s relative power in negotiations killed the effort to put a living wage with benefits in the contract. Hundreds of janitors remain below the living wage standard, and all part-time janitors were left without health benefits.

Nov. 1999 The Campaign invites President Rudenstine to come to a rally and explain the reasons that he pays poverty wages, promising him a fair hearing and a polite audience. He does not show.

Dec. 1999 The Campaign begins a comprehensive effort to canvass the entire


Living Wage Carolers serenade administrators in their offices with Christmas carols about the poverty that they create.

January 2000 Members of the Living Wage Campaign appear as featured speakers at an Assumption College conference on welfare reform and related economic activism.

March 2000 Thirty campaign members enter the offices of key administrators unannounced and hold a mock teach-in, designed to educate administrators about the need for a living wage. Administrators in Massachusetts Hall lock all the internal doors in the building to prevent what they imagine is a building takeover. From this point until the end of the year, police officers and vehicles are stationed in and outside administrative buildings every day.

April 2000 The Cambridge City Council passes an order urging Harvard to implement a living wage immediately.

At a rally in Harvard Yard, City Councillors Marjorie Decker and Jim Braude announce that they will refuse to approve building permits for Harvard until the university implements a living wage.

The Campaign sponsors a rally and sleep-out, during which several dozen students sleep outside in the rain to support a living wage policy.

President Rudenstine refuses to meet with the Living Wage Campaign.

Thirty campaign members occupy the Harvard College admissions office for six hours to distribute information about poverty on campus to the hundreds of admitted students arriving for a weekend of orientation. Risking arrest and disciplinary action, the students refuse to leave when asked by police and administrators. Preparing for the possibility of arrest, students collect an open letter of defense from professors, and arrange for faculty to pay their bail.

May 2000 The Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies releases its report, rejecting the implementation of any wage standard for Harvard workers. The committee states that Harvard has some responsibility for subcontracted workers and recommends an expanded benefits package, which Rudenstine and the Harvard Corporation vow to implement.

The Campaign responds with a "Workers First!" concert and rally for a living wage during Arts First weekend. The event features Cambridge natives Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Howard Zinn, and attracts a crowd of 1,000 people. The Campaign pledges to continue working for a living wage with benefits for all workers at Harvard.

President Rudenstine announces that he will resign effective June 30, 2001. The search committee to select his replacement includes no students, unlike such committees at other schools. Its choice will be approved by the Harvard Corporation, which does not release minutes of its meetings and is not accountable to anyone except itself.

Sept. 2000 The university announces that its endowment exceeds $19 billion.

Oct. 2000 In its ongoing interviews with workers, Campaign members learn that the adopted report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment policies is not being implemented. Workers who are eligible for benefits are not receiving them and do not even know that they are eligible. Union representatives have never been notified of the content or adoption of the report. Some workers who have expressed interest in taking part in the newly-extended literacy program have never heard back from the administration. The Campaign brings these problems to the attention of President Rudenstine, Provost Fineberg, and Associate Vice President for Human Resources Polly Price. Rudenstine and Fineberg say only that implementation takes time. Price claims that she had sent notice to the unions representing dining hall workers, janitors, and security guards on Friday, October 20, three days before the conversation and roughly five months after the adoption of the report.

Nov. 2000 Campaign members meet with Provost Fineberg and President Rudenstine during their office hours. Both administrators say that they see the living wage a closed issue, and will consider no future policy changes. They argue that the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies reflected the views of the entire Harvard community, even though it consisted only of administrators and faculty members hand-picked by Rudenstine. The committee spoke with only one worker, who was brought by the Living Wage Campaign.

The Living Wage Campaign writes to the entire Harvard Corporation, which is Harvard’s highest governing body, to request a public discussion of living wage and sweatshop issues with the Corporation. The Corporation members do not respond; the Campaign receives only a letter from the Corporation Secretary, who reports that the Corporation will not meet because "they regard such matters as falling fully within the administrative responsibility of the President and other senior officers of the University." This is in spite of the fact that the Corporation has jurisdiction over every policy decision at the university.

The Campaign speaks again with Associate Vice President for Human Resources Polly Price on November 21 to discuss the ongoing failure to implement the Ad Hoc Committee’s report. Without explanation, she explains that she had just sent notification of the report to the unions representing dining hall workers, janitors, and security guards the week before our conversation. This is exactly what she had told us the month before. Price also reveals that the university’s literacy program is serving hundreds fewer workers than promised, that subcontracting companies will not even be notified of the report until January 2001, and that subcontracted workers will not receive promised benefits until their contracts are renewed—potentially several years later.

Dec. 2000 The Living Wage Campaign initiates the first in a series of meetings among all the unions representing Harvard workers. Nine of eleven unions send representatives, agree to individually push for living wage language in their next contract, and they set to work drafting a labor Code of Conduct which they will work together to establish as university policy.

More than 20 Harvard workers and their families gather together with about 20

Harvard undergraduates at the university’s first annual Worker Appreciation Day, jointly sponsored by the Black Students Association, the Harvard Haitian Alliance, and the Living Wage Campaign.

The Living Wage Campaign signs a contract to put a display in Harvard’s Science Center, as many student groups do. The display consists of transcriptions of interviews with Harvard workers. Half way through the contract’s duration, the administration demands that it be removed the next day or it will be torn down, stating that the contract had been signed by an alumnus member of PSLM rather than an undergraduate, as Harvard regulations require. Twenty-five PSLM members and union representatives converge on the Science Center to argue that the display be kept up for the duration of the contract; the administration backs down and retracts its threat to tear down the display.

The Living Wage Campaign stages "Neil Rudenstine’s Christmas In Jail," a spoof holiday pageant about the university president going to jail for paying criminally low wages. The production features students, workers, union representatives, local politicians, and representatives from local community, religious, and labor organizations.

For the fiscal year the university runs an operating surplus (income minus expenditures) of $120 million, of which $51 million is in unrestricted funds.

Feb. 2001 The university reclassifies workers in Harvard Business School dining facilities, reducing their wages from above to below the living wage -- while keeping their duties constant.

The Living Wage Campaign delivers spoof "love your workers" valentines to administrators, including President Rudenstine, at their homes.

Harvard Medical School announces that it is outsourcing its custodial work, continuing a Harvard trend. The 20 full-time and 92 part-time employees will be offered jobs at the new firm, but their wages and benefits remain unclear. Eric Buehrens, a dean at the Medical School, tells the Crimson, "This is probably the most comprehensive outsourcing of maintenance [at Harvard] to date."

March 2001 As Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis attempts to address a group of parents in a Harvard auditorium during Junior Parents’ Weekend, six parents silently raise signs supporting a living wage for university workers. Officers of the Harvard University Police Department order the parents to put down the signs, leave, or be arrested.

That same weekend, about twenty PSLM members visit the workplaces of Corporation members in New York City. They deliver requests for meetings, demonstrate outside offices, and distribute leaflets that call on the Corporation to adopt a living wage. Corporation member and university Treasurer D. Ronald Daniel responds to the Campaign through his secretary to say that he will not meet.

Thirty PSLM members converge on the Sunday afternoon news conference at which Harvard announces its selection of former World Bank economist Larry Summers as its new president. The students call on Summers to implement a living wage for Harvard workers, and they criticize the secretive search process. The next day, the Campaign leads 200 students and others as they march on Loeb House, where the Corporation is meeting with Summers. They reiterate the previous day’s concerns and request a meeting with the Corporation, but are blocked from approaching the building by Harvard police.

The Living Wage Campaign meets for the third time with Associate Vice President for Human Resources Polly Price to discuss the administration’s continued failure to implement the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies. Price reveals that Harvard will not in fact speak with subcontractors about the report’s guidelines until the summer of 2001, more than a year after the report’s adoption and months later than her promised time of January 2001. The Living Wage Campaign proposes that a board of students, workers, union representatives, faculty, and administrators be created to oversee report implementation, since the administration has failed to implement it on its own. Price falsely claims that such a board would be illegal.

April 2001 A delegation from the Living Wage Campaign meets with President Rudenstine one last time during his office hours. Rudenstine defends the Ad Hoc Committee’s thirteen-month investigation, declaring that it was an exhaustive and conclusive study of the issue. He makes this claim despite the fact that he has been made aware that i)no effort was made to alleviate the basic financial poverty of workers, ii)the committee only met with one worker during their entire study, and that worker was brought to a meeting by the Living Wage Campaign, and iii) that the provisions of the report, nearly one year after its release, have yet to be adequately implemented. Rudenstine concludes that it would be too "time consuming" to initiate any further research into a living wage policy.