What's Biased?

The data released today paint an unforgiving picture of Harvard as an employer. Yet the committee's narrative downplays some of the most damning data, uncritically presents administrative justifications for current conditions, and whitewashes Harvard's active role in destroying working conditions.
  • The committee's narrative uncritically presents administrative arguments and terms.
    1. The narrative often takes at face value Harvard's claim that it outsources to secure higher-quality services. This claim is disputed by Harvard workers and unions, who point out that the real "gains" Harvard secures through outsourcing are workers with lower wages, fewer benefits, and often no union through which to contest their inadequate conditions.
    2. When administrators do admit that they outsource to cut labor costs, the narrative uncritically imports their euphemisms, reporting that Harvard is trying to maintain financial viability by reigning in unprofitable in-house enterprises. (See, e.g., the discussion of the guards on p. 15.) Aside from being a transparent cover for exploitative motives, this phrase seems highly inappropriate for a non-profit institution. Safety at Harvard is not, and should not be, a for-profit enterprise.
    3. The narrative reports that Harvard has created more full-time directly-hired janitorial positions, but it uses Harvard's purposely misleading definition of full-time work - at least 20 hours per week. (p.9.)
    4. The report adopts a number of administrative terms which cast as morally neutral actions and relationships which are highly suspect. For instance, it refers to Harvard bringing janitors' wages "in line with" those of area contractors - what Harvard did was slash wages to the lowest common denominator. (See, e.g., p. 7.) And throughout, the committee refers to directly-hired workers as "Harvard employees" and outsourced Harvard workers as "employees of service contractors." (See, e.g., p. 5.) These are Harvard's administrative phrases designed to shield the university from responsibility to its most exploited workers.

  • The narrative's discussion of worker demographics invites the reader to believe that Harvard's low-wage workers deserve the wages they are being paid.
    The narrative describes Harvard's falling wages as being "associated with" a shift in the demographic make-up of Harvard's workforce - workers are increasingly immigrants, people of color, and less highly educated than past workers. The narrative phrases these facts to frame immigrant status, and other demographic data, as a predictor of wages, and thus invites the conclusion that Harvard must inevitably underpay these workers. We would counter that Harvard is taking advantage of populations which are least able to defend themselves, and that it has the prerogative and responsibility to pay them decently.

  • The narrative exonerates university administrators of responsibility for deteriorating working conditions, and pins it on campus unions.
    The clearest case of this distortion is seen in the discussion of the janitors, whose union is blamed for failing to win good wages for workers, and actually allowing wages to fall. What is never explained is Harvard's deliberate attempts to push down wages, and why wages fell when they did in 1992 and 1996. There was no change in union leadership or membership at these times, but the university began using the threat of outsourcing to extract extraordinary concessions from workers. This tactic was used across all parts of the service sector - indeed, the data reveals a simultaneous fall in wages and union power for janitors, dining service workers, and guards in the early-to-mid-1990s. Harvard is never indicated as an agent in this report.

  • The narrative places disproportionate and misleading focus on directly-hired, unionized workers, deflecting attention away from casual and outsourced workers.
    In doing so, the narrative replicates the administration's tactic of downplaying the severity of workplace abuses by ignoring the most exploited workers. The committee may have had honest problems in securing data on these workers, but it should have noted these institutional obstacles to monitoring- obstacles which reveal political and moral problems with Harvard's employment structures.