Why We Are Sitting In

During the last two years, poverty-level wages and benefits have emerged as a pressing problem at our university. From directly-hired janitors in our dorms to outsourced dining hall workers in our graduate school cafeterias, over 1,000 Harvard employees face a daily struggle to support themselves and their families as Harvard pays them wages as low as $6.50 per hour without benefits. They face 90-hour work weeks, they face days and months without seeing their children or spouses, they face medical emergencies without health care, and they face evictions and homelessness. As thousands of students, workers, faculty members, unions, alumni/ae, and community members have agreed, no one should face these circumstances, and we can not permit them in our community.

The Living Wage Campaign has worked since 1998 to ensure that all Harvard employees can afford to decently live and raise their families in the Cambridge community. Today, after more than two years of meetings, coalition-building, and public demonstrations, we have begun an indefinite sit-in in Harvard's administrative offices. This move represents an escalation of our pressure on the administration, and we believe that such escalation is justified.

We are sitting in because we have exhausted every avenue of dialogue with the administration that could lead to a living wage. Since March 1999, we have met repeatedly with administrators including the President, Provost, Vice President for Administration, Associate Vice President for Human Resources, Director of Labor Relations, Dean of Students, and Associate Dean of the College. We have asked to meet with the Corporation and have been refused: President Rudenstine explained that "they usually deliberate on their own," and the Secretary to the Corporation falsely claimed that wage and benefit policies fall outside the jurisdiction of the Corporation. The meetings we did have uniformly consisted of administrative refusals to adopt or even consider a living wage policy. Before the release of the findings of the Presidents appointed Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies in May 2000, administrators claimed that the committees ongoing deliberations prevented them from approving any changes. And since the committee released its recommendations--rejecting the implementation of any wage standard whatsoever for Harvard workers--administrators have told us that the issue is closed: they will consider no further changes, or even investigations into possible changes.

We are sitting in because we have exhausted every other strategy when dialogue with the administration has failed. We have written op-eds, we have sponsored teach-ins, we have collected student, faculty, and parent petitions, and we have organized alumni/ae to refuse to donate money to Harvard. We have spoken on both local and national television and radio, and we have spoken at conferences on labor and economic affairs. Since February 1999, we have sponsored dozens of public demonstrations, attracting crowds of 150 to 1,000 people. And we have tried less imposing forms of direct action: in April 2000, we occupied Harvard's admissions office for one day during Pre-Frosh Weekend, distributing literature and holding teach-ins to educate prospective students about poverty at Harvard.

We are sitting in because administrators have not only failed to improve wages and benefits, but have aggressively worked to slash them as support for a living wage policy has grown. In the face of opposition from unions, workers, faculty, and students, the university has outsourced hundreds of jobs to firms which pay poverty-level wages and benefits. An egregious case is that of Harvard's security guards, whose ranks have been cut from roughly 120 to 18 by outsourcing, and whose union has been decimated in the process. Outsourcing meant that guards wages fell overnight from roughly $12 to $8 per hour, benefits were similarly slashed, the guards union was effectively busted, and the subcontracted workers have no union through which to contest their inadequate conditions. Moreover, just this semester, Harvard has subcontracted and reclassified hundreds more jobs--janitors at the Medical School and dining workers at the Business School--with similarly destructive results for workers.

We are sitting in because Harvard's wage and benefit policies threaten the economic survival and violate the dignity of university workers, and our community overwhelmingly recognizes this fact. Every campus union has endorsed our campaign, and the hundreds of workers with whom we have spoken--unionized and not--have made clear that they need a living wage. Over 150 Harvard faculty members have endorsed our campaign. Two thousand students have signed our petition, and according to a Crimson poll, more than three-quarters of students support the implementation of a living wage policy. Over 100 alumni/ae have gone so far as to refuse to donate money to Harvard until it implements a living wage. Dozens of community, religious, and labor organizations have endorsed the Campaign or taken part in demonstrations. The Cambridge City Council has twice passed resolutions or orders calling on Harvard to implement a living wage policy, and City Councillors have been joined by other local and national politicians in endorsing the Campaign, demonstrating with us, and personally communicating their concerns to the administration. Finally, a wide array of public figures have endorsed our campaign and spoken for it: these people include actors Ben Affleck, Warren Beatty, and Matt Damon; NAACP Chairman Julian Bond; linguist Noam Chomsky; writers Barbara Ehrenreich, Leslie Feinberg, and Jim Hightower; Rev. Jesse Jackson; Senators Edward Kennedy and Paul Wellstone; and historian Howard Zinn.

Finally, we are sitting in because poverty on our campus is brutal and cannot wait any longer for remedy. Today, over 1,000 Harvard workers are paid wages as low as $6.50 per hour without benefits. This is a wage that puts a parent with one child below the federal poverty line. The people who clean our buildings, cook our meals, and guard our dorms routinely work two and even three jobs--as many as 90 hours per week--and still struggle to support themselves and their families. They are regularly forced to make impossible and unfair sacrifices--sacrificing their health, their interests, and their responsibilities to their families--simply to make ends meet. And some ultimately find themselves unable even to do that: today, there are Harvard janitors who regularly eat in soup kitchens and sleep in shelters because they can not pay for food and rent. These people, and the rest of us who are forced to be complicit in their exploitation, cannot wait for the remote possibility that administrators will decide to reopen what they have called a "closed issue." The human and social costs of Harvard's policies are immense, and require remedy now.

With these considerations in mind, we are sitting in for the following demand: 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. 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.

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.

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 Codes guidelines.

We believe that participants in and supporters of this sit-in should face no academic or disciplinary repercussions within the university, and those employed by the university should be assured job security. Participants and supporters should additionally face no civil or criminal charges brought at the request of the university or its members. These immunity guidelines have routinely been demanded and met in the dozens of student sit-ins that have taken place nationally during the last three years.

All of us who have entered Massachusetts Hall have done so with our eyes open, and are prepared for any repercussions that we may face. We do not think that punishment is justified, however, because we do not believe that that what we are doing is criminal. Harvard is falling short of basic standards of economic fairness and human dignity, and in acting to make it meet those standards, we are acting to make our community what it ought to be. We are acting to make it the kind of place that thousands of students, workers, faculty members, unions, alumni/ae and community members have said it should be. We are acting to make it a better university. This is not a criminal act.