What would Victory Be?
Chris Sturr
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of Philosophy
Tufts University

My name is Chris Sturr; I'm currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Tufts; I'm also a reporter for a Cambridge radio station, WMBR, and for the Boston Independent Media Center. I've been covering the Living Wage Campaign this year, and covering the sit-in since the beginning. (You can listen to weekly reports on the sit-in on WMBR's local news, 88.1 FM, Thursdays from 6-6:30pm.)

Next year I will be working at Harvard, as a Visiting Lecturer in Social Studies. This will not be my first affiliation with Harvard--I used to work at Harvard as a casual employee (as a research assistant at the K School and the B School, where I worked two half-time jobs, but received no benefits. And I worked at those schools' ethics programs, no less).

Before that, I was an undergrad at Harvard. The year I graduated--1989--was the year that the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers finally won union recognition, after a long hard struggle. The presence of that union struggle on campus while I was a student had a profound radicalizing effect on me and many of my classmates. It's clear to me that this movement will have--has already had--a tremendous radicalizing effect for many of you. The radicalizing effect is already a victory for the campaign.

But the question I want to address today is this: What would count as an overall victory for this Living Wage Campaign? I want to make the case that winning a fair wage for the 400 to 2000 workers who make less than $10.25 an hour, as important as that goal is, would not count as an overall victory.

Instead, the victory we should be aiming at throughout this struggle is the goal of changing the decision-making structure at Harvard--making it more democratic. Decision-making is democratic when decisions are made collectively by the people whose lives are affected by the outcome of the decision. This clearly doesn't happen at Harvard. The low wages for some workers at Harvard are a symptom of this; what this campaign aims to fix is not just that symptom, but the problem of the lack of democracy at Harvard.

Now, the very existence of unions on campus indicates some changes in how decision-making is done at Harvard. It can no longer be done entirely by the Harvard Corporation and the administration. (This is why Harvard fought against HUCTW so hard--they used every union-busting tactic in the book.) Furthermore, this movement is changing the way decisions are made at Harvard--this is forcing Harvard to take certain interests into account when it makes its decisions. But this just underscores the fact that the goal in the long-run ought to be not the fulfillment of the wage demands on their own (though we certainly should push for them to be fulfilled), but centrally, the establishment of permanent, binding, decision-making power for everyone whose lives are affected by Harvard's decisions and policies.

One way we can see that the real aim of this movement is to change the way Harvard is run, is the fact that otherwise, the university's reluctance to give in looks irrational, even blundering. If we thought that the central demand of the campaign is the wage increase, we might be puzzled about why the administration is holding out so long.

Here the issue is not that there is any "irony" in the fact that an institution that has an $19 billion endowment should pay its workers so poorly (as some people have claimed). In my view, there's no irony in this at all. Wealthy institutions and corporations are always built on such practices; that is in many ways the source of their wealth! So in many ways it is anti-Harvard to be pro-union, pro-sit-in, pro-living wage--or in any case, to favor these is to want to transform Harvard, so that it is no longer a corporation controlled by a few rich men, but instead a social resource controlled collectively by the people who make up the real Harvard--its workers, students, and community members.

Instead, the point is that, if you thought that the point of the campaign is the wage increase itself, you might be surprised that such a wealthy institution would put up with the bad press, public embarrassment, trampling of its grass, etc., when it could accede to that demand fairly cheaply, from its point of view. It would only cost a few million dollars to raise the lowest wages at Harvard to $10.25 an hour; why wouldn't Harvard spend a few million dollars to avoid all this bad press?

But the administration is in fact not being irrational or blundering. Indeed, if they could make this movement go away with a few million dollars, they would do so immediately. But the administration sees that the situation is not so simple. What the administration is really resisting is having their decision-making prerogative taken away: in the short run, by coercive tactics which force them to rethink their decisions (and direct actions like sit-ins are always coercive, as Martin Luther King often emphasized); and in the long run, by the threat of changes in the decision-making structure at the university. (So the members of the administration are exactly right when they recognize the sit-in as coercive--they have noticed that this is not about persuading them--they missed their opportunity to be persuaded--but about forcing them to recognize certain interests, and to change the unilateral way they make decisions.)

Another way of seeing that the central goal of this movement is to change decision-making structure of Harvard, is to look at the very demands of the Living Wage Campaign, and in particular, the three steps (which are included as part of the demands) for implementing a living wage. The central demand runs as follows:

All Harvard workers, whether directly employed or hired through outside firms, must be paid a living wage of at least $10.25 per hour, adjusted annually to inflation, and with basic health benefits.

This is the central demand--but it's in how the demand would have to be implemented that we see what the real underlying goals of the movement are, and how this struggle is connected with larger goals than the worthy but limited goal of achieving a fair wage for the lowest paid workers. The demands continue as follows:

Complete implementation of such a living wage policy requires three other simple steps:

To ensure that the university does not use subcontracting and reclassification to cut wages and benefits, as the Harvard Corporation has agreed it should not, Harvard must adopt a policy of maintaining wage and benefit levels when jobs are outsourced or reclassified. Our Implementation Report contains methods for assuring this which should be adopted.

The fact that this is among the demands of the Campaign indicates one way in which this struggle is connected with larger struggles in the labor movement against trends toward out-sourcing, and replacing permanent jobs with good wages and benefits with temporary, contingent, or "casual" labor. The burden of these trends have disproportionately fallen on people of color and immigrants, who disproportionately fill the lowest-paying jobs at Harvard as well.

At Harvard, out-sourcing and reclassifying have been significant because such practices undermine what gains have been made (through the unions' struggles) to democratize decision-making at Harvard. Why does Harvard out-source and reclassify? To save money, perhaps. But if this were the only reason, it would hardly be worth it. In fact, Harvard out-sources and reclassifies to regain decision-making power from the unions and the workers. So this part of the Campaign's demands aims to force Harvard to put an end to this practice, and thus help workers at Harvard retain what decision-making power they have gained over the years.

The second step required to implement a living wage is as follows:

A board must be created, not appointed by the administration, to oversee implementation of the living wage policy. The board should have binding policy-making power to enforce the policy, and should consist of workers, union representatives, faculty, members of PSLM, and an administrator.

This, I believe, is the component of the Campaign's demands that the administration resists the most. They are most of all concerned to protect their decision-making prerogative. The demand is for a permanent body with binding policy-making power to enforce a living-wage policy, a body which would be made up of the very people affected by that policy. That body would be made up of the constituencies whose lives are affected by Harvard's decisions and policies. That's what the administration doesn't want.

The third step required for implementing a living wage is as follows:

Harvard relies on the labor of workers both on campus and off, and both must be covered by the university's living wage policy. Workers in factories that produce Harvard goods must therefore be assured a living wage for their community; indeed, Harvard has already agreed to a Code of Conduct which contains a commitment to this very idea. In order to determine whether factories are complying with Harvard's Code, however, the university must join the Worker Rights Consortium, the only independent factory monitoring group which satisfies the Code's guidelines.

This third demand connects this struggle with the larger movements--against corporate globalization, against sweat-shops, against racism and neo-colonialism. But again, it does so by trying to shift decision-making power away from the people who have it now--the Harvard administration, the Harvard Corporation, and the people who own and run the companies from which Harvard buys its goods--and toward people whose lives are affected by Harvard, but who currently have no say in the decisions and policies that affect their lives--the workers who manufacture Harvard sweatshirts, caps, and other products. If this demand is met, then those workers can influence the decisions and policies that affect their lives, both through the Workers' Rights Consortium, and by forming their own unions, so that they can negotiate with their employers.

So when we examine the demands--as surely the administration has!--we can see that what the administration is resisting is not paying the workers more per se, but the changes in the decision-making structure of the university that would represent.

Finally, people have been saying that the Harvard administration is being immoral, that the administration lacks "moral vision". This may or may not be the case, but in my view there is a danger in making the university's moral conscience central to our understanding of this struggle.

For one thing, the administration thinks it's doing the right thing: according to the report it released last year, what would be fair would be to provide more benefits to workers--museum passes, English classes, etc. We may differ--we may think that morality and fairness requires $10.25 an hour. Some of us may think that $10.25 an hour isn't fair, either--I can hardly imagine living on that in Cambridge. Some of us may think that, even if the lowest-paid workers at Harvard were paid $10.25 an hour, it wouldn't be fair that faculty make at least twice that, and more often three, four, or even five times that. (I shudder to think of what administrators make!) If we convinced ourselves that $10.25 is "fair" for janitors and dining hall workers, would that make us comfortable with the huge disparities that would surely remain among Harvard salaries?

But the more important point is that the Harvard administration could very easily "do what's right" and pay a fair wage (if we think that a wage of $10.25 is a fair and just wage), without changing the way it makes decisions one bit. It could even do so because it's the right thing to do, because it has realized the "moral seriousness" of the issue, but still not change the way it does what it does. The administration would still be in the driver's seat. Would it be better if the administration, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, and with a feeling of moral righteousness and pride, had paid all its workers at least $10.25 an hour all on its own? Certainly in a sense that would be better. The hardships the workers who face who currently make less than $10.25 an hour would be less. But what about their remaining hardships? As I've said, I don't think you can live very easily in Cambridge on $10.25 an hour. And what about the workers who make (slightly) more than $10.25 an hour? And what about next year, or five years from now, when housing or food or gas prices have increased, or T fares have gone up again? Furthermore, some of the problems workers face at Harvard don't have to do with wages or benefits, but are more directly about decision-making--having a say about their working hours, not being subject to arbitrary decisions by supervisors, having predictable schedules and job descriptions, etc. Only permanent, binding decision-making power for everyone whose lives are affected by Harvard can address these larger concerns; this must be the central goal of the movement.

If we make this merely a moral struggle--a struggle to bring Harvard's conscience in line with ours--as opposed to a political struggle--a struggle to change the underlying decision-making structure at Harvard--then we are letting the administration keep control. If we make this merely a moral, rather than a political struggle, then we are leaving workers' lives at the mercy of Harvard's moral sensibilities in the long run. But we shouldn't trust those sensibilities, partly because they haven't shown themselves to be trustworthy, but mainly because to do so would be undemocratic--it would leave intact social hierarchies and decision-making prerogatives that we ought to be challenging. Let's not makes this, in the long run, about Harvard's conscience. The administration may be "morally blind", but even if it weren't, its moral vision would be little comfort to workers if the administration retained its decision-making prerogatives. This movement must instead be about taking decision-making power out of the hands of the administration and the Harvard Corporation, and putting it into the hands of all the people whose lives are affected by Harvard--the workers, students, neighbors, and community members.