Response to President Rudenstine

4/28/01

During the past eleven days, we in the Living Wage Campaign have been inspired by the outpouring of support for a living wage, and for our sit-in, from all parts of our community. Workers from janitors to secretaries to dining hall workers have assembled solidarity rallies and given speeches outside Mass Hall; hundreds of students have taken part in panels, rallies, and vigils; three hundred faculty members have organized the Faculty Committee for a Living Wage; alumni/ae and parents have traveled to Cambridge to visit students sitting in; organizations from PBHA to the Harvard Anthropology Department have endorsed the sit-in; and unions and community groups have provided supplies from food to tents to funding. The support of our community has been inspiring and overwhelming.

Since the sit-in began last Wednesday, we have encountered very little public opposition; and significantly, when we have spoken with counter-protesters, many have come to agree with us that a living wage is necessary, and that a sit-in is a fair action at this point in the Campaign's history. The one consistent source of opposition to our sit-in has been the Harvard administration. This week, President Rudenstine released two statements about the sit-in. We would like to respond to those statements.

In his first statement, President Rudenstine pointed to the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies as having been a fair solution to the problem of poverty in our community. In fact, the Committee's report has resulted in only 19 Harvard workers receiving health benefits, and the extension of ESL classes to a few hundred workers. Even if report implementation were improved, it would not be enough: benefits and education are important, but cannot substitute for fair wages. Harvard workers cannot pay their rent on $6.50 per hour, regardless of the number of dental appointments and literacy courses Harvard allows them. The simple proof of this fact is seen in the experiences of the hundreds of workers at Harvard who work two and three jobs--as many as 90 hours per week--because Harvard's low wages do not cover their daily needs. The inadequacy of this report is not surprising, as the committee which produced it was hand-picked by the administration. It included only administrators and faculty chosen by President Rudenstine, it did not meet with a single union representative, and the only worker with whom it met was brought by the Living Wage Campaign to do so. Its deliberations were seriously impaired by a fundamental divorce from the workers and larger community that lie at the center of this discussion.

In President Rudenstine's second statement, he agreed for the first time that the Ad Hoc Committee's report might not be Harvard's only solution to the problems of low-wage workers, and we are glad that he has shown some willingness to look into further policy changes. However, he has shown no willingness to seriously negotiate those policy changes. He has instead sent representatives to tell us that he will begin discussions once we leave the building. He has not specified any timeline for those discussions, nor has he said whom they would include, nor has he made any assurance that the discussions will be anything more than discussions. It seems all too likely that discussions, if designed by the administration, would resemble the fruitless, unrepresentative ones that we have witnessed for the past three years--the failed discussions which have created the need for this sit-in. The first type of discussion that we have seen is that in which students, workers, unions, faculty, and alumni/ae present concerns to the administration, and administrators reject them. The second type of discussion has been the administrative appointment of a private committee which included no students, workers, union representatives, or elected faculty members. Such exchanges can hardly be called free or honest dialogue, and yet they encompass the range of the administration's proposals for dialogue over the last three years. We have no reason to believe that administrators will now propose anything more meaningful, free, or honest.

We have proposed what we believe to be a real dialogue: we have proposed that the administration negotiate with us now. We are prepared to conduct negotiations in good faith, and if administrators will agree, we are prepared to include workers, faculty, and union representatives, as well as ourselves, as each of these constituencies is an integral part of the Living Wage Campaign, and each has an important stake in our university's labor policies. We are prepared to work together for a solution that will improve the lives of Harvard workers, and improve Harvard as an institution.

President Rudenstine has rejected our proposal by arguing that our action is coercive and "inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university." We would like to respond briefly to these claims. First, it is not coercive for our community to stand together as it has, both inside and outside Massachusetts Hall--students, unions, workers, faculty, alumni/ae, parents, and community members--and to say that we all think that workers here deserve a living wage. It is not coercive to say that we will use civil disobedience when all other modes of discussion and action are met with firm administrative refusals. What is coercive is the decision of a handful of administrators to deny the consensus of our community, and to deny a living wage to more than 1,000 people.

Rather than coerce the administration, the sit-in is bringing the voices of our community into a fairer, more equal balance. For the past three years, the basic imbalance of power within the university has permitted administrators to unilaterally reject the calls for a living wage, even as they have streamed in from thousands of members of our community. The sit-in has given our community's many voices greater standing, allowing students, workers, unions, and faculty to speak with the authority and power often denied them. Re-balancing the power relations in this way is not coercive, nor is it disruptive to the community: it is in fact fair, and it is respectful of the community.

We further deny that a sit-in is "inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university." Peaceful acts of civil disobedience for broadly-accepted goals are part of a proud tradition at this university, in this country, and throughout the world. We think that it is the university's three-year refusal to conduct productive dialogue, its ongoing denial of fair wages, and its current refusal to negotiate, that are inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university.

Finally, we find Rudenstine's statements deeply disappointing in their refusal to discuss the issues at hand: fair wages and benefits. These are the issues for which we are sitting in, they are the issues that thousands of members of our community have come out to support, and they are the issues that we look forward to negotiating with the administration. No one should live in poverty, and especially not anyone who works for an institution as wealthy as Harvard. No one should face medical emergencies without health coverage. No one should have to work 80 hours per week simply to pay rent and buy groceries. And no one should return home after working two jobs only to have to eat dinner in a soup kitchen or spend the night at a homeless shelter. These are simple ideas. They are ideas that our community overwhelmingly supports. It is time for President Rudenstine to join the rest of our community in affirming these ideas by working with us to implement a living wage policy.