Upstairs, Downstairs

Students and staff

When the janitors and dining hall staff arrive at 6 a.m., the Currier House dining hall resembles a poorly conceived seventeenth-century Dutch still life: blue plastic trays piled on top of one another, cups running over, remnants of yesterday's kung kung pao chicken and tempeh fajitas glued to plates. The late-night "brain break" snack, initiated by Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) to sustain students through their procrastination, has been picked over; crumbs of cookies are ground into the carpet. Yet by the time most undergraduates wander in, everthing has been returned to lustrous order.

By this, my senior year, I recognize by sight and know by name nearly all the staff members who clean up, cook for, and guard the place I live. The crew chief, Juan, greets me cheerfully in the halls, and Steve, in the dining hall, knows that I eat a hard-boiled egg every night. But I don't know their last names, and the sneeze guard that protects the food from my germs also divides me from the staff who prepare the meals I eat. I no longer leave trays out overnight in the dining hall, but the image serves to remind me, during the comfort of my last year here, that food isn't the only thing that spoils at Harvard.

Greg Halpern '99 also wondered why so many students apparently don't see the figures beyond the picture frame, the many staff members whisking away their leftovers. "Are they really aware that another human being is going to pick that up? Are they thinking, 'Well, it disappeared last time, it'll disappear this time?'" His frustrated inquiry resulted in "Harvard Works Because We Do," an independent-study project under the direction of Robert Coles '50, Agee professor of social ethics and professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, for which Halpern interviewed more than 50 University staff members. Selected statements from these conversations appeared in a display at the Science Center in the spring of 1999 (see "Living Wages?" July-August 1999, page 68) and again, briefly, this fall. "I wanted to make something arresting, something that people would notice," Halpern recalled in a recent interview, "because a lot of students don't notice, or ignore, these people who are in their lives.

"Part of my project was to give staff a chance to speak for themselves," Halpern explained. "I wanted to challenge the idea that staff weren't aware of their surroundings, or perceptive enough to pick up on class difference. I wanted to challenge the myth that there was an inherent genius in Harvard students, or an inherent lack in a janitor." Such assumptions remain unspoken, but exist in some students' minds nonetheless. We may presume shame about washing dishes. It becomes difficult at Harvard to recognize distinction unless conferred by degree.

Some students, however, learn from personal experience that Harvard's sheen results from sponges and mops, not legerdemain. These are the men and women of dorm crew, who earn up to $10.25 an hour to clean their peers' sinks, toilets, and tubs. Many of them do the jobs for the exemplary pay. But the dynamic of students serving other students creates its own complexity. Undergraduates working for dorm crew realize that cleaning bathrooms doesn't top the list of coveted positions. "You have to accept that you're just doing a job, and get over the fact that you're cleaning for another student," said John D'Amore '02, a junior who has risen through dorm crew's ranks to become a captain. "You have to not think about it as a class thing, and remember that Harvard would find other people to do it if we didn't." For D'Amore, dorm crew "teaches humility....The truth is, most of us probably aren't going to be doing manual labor after we leave, but this gives us a sense of respect when we come into contact with people in service industries."

For Robert Baror '01, working for HUDS provides a way to interact closely with other employees. "I've definitely gotten to know the staff better," he said. "And since moving off campus, the people I'm most excited to see in Quincy House are the cooks." Since last fall, Baror has worked "on the line" (food presentation) or in Quincy's dishroom. "There's a sense of accomplishment, because you get to see what you finish at the end of the day," Baror noted. "As soon as I started working in the kitchen, I appreciated it a lot more. I don't think there's less value doing this than doing consulting; serving food is just as important as looking at a computer screen. Everyone has to eat, and these are the people who feed us."

Still, the irony--that their wages in some cases match those of Harvard's part-time employees--is not lost on students. In some undergraduate Houses, students and staff divide the work of cleaning bathrooms at the discretion of the superintendent. "You interact and work with these people you wouldn't get to know otherwise--except we're just working and it's their real job," said Sara Zelle '03, a clean-up captain for dorm crew in Leverett House. "It's strange to run into other maintenance workers when you just know that your opportunities are so much greater than theirs. One of the main reasons that I keep doing dorm crew is that it's such a big leveler. Cleaning people's bathrooms keeps your perspective--it makes me feel like not such a Harvard student."

 

The best student-staff relationships grow in the Houses, supported by the intimacy of daily contact. A chef spoke of meeting with students to play basketball. "It's nice because we're so close in age," he said. "We get a chance to see each other six days a week. I see the students more than my regular friends!" Many employees expressed a sympathy for students' pressures, and linked our occasional self-absorption not to snobbery, but to demanding schedules. "Students come first," one of the shuttle drivers told me. "They depend on our work, so they're appreciative. This whole place is service. Students are so busy that if you provide service, you should be friendly." Some employees saw their role as augmenting Harvard's traditional education. One HUDS staffer told me, "You try to have a positive influence, to get students to see and understand your work ethic."

Some students' respect for the staff contribution to Harvard's community inspires them to action. The Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) and the Living Wage Campaign, student organizations concerned with Harvard's employment practices, initiate events to raise the University's level of consciousness about its 12,000 nonfaculty employees. Past efforts have included colloquia, picketing outside University Hall, and, most memorably, a rally last May. The protest responded to a report issued by the University's Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies, which recommended increasing training and benefits for both part- and full-time workers, but stopped short of endorsing a minimum $10.25 hourly "living" wage.

So far, the 2000-2001 school year has yet to see any big PSLM gestures, but the group continues to lament the University's stance on labor issues. "Last year's [ad hoc] committee was largely made up of professors who made no effort to go out and actually talk to workers," said Benjamin McKean '02, one of PSLM's members. "We brought a janitor to the committee, and that was the first and only time they heard from any actual staff." The group cites an increase in service outsourcing as a way for Harvard to escape responsibility to its employees. Amy Offner '01, another active PSLM supporter, worried about the silence in the report's wake. "We're concerned about its implementation," she said. "There doesn't seem to be a mechanism for making sure that workplaces meet standards"--so the PSLM may turn its bullhorns toward the Harvard Corporation. Plans are under way to present a petition in support of a living wage, with 1,000 student signatures, to Corporation members. "Last year we got a nine-month-long lesson in the power structure of the University," McKean declared, "and now we feel we've found another leverage point."

Spoken like a true union organizer. But in the course of my conversations with more than 20 Harvard staff members, only a few had even heard of the Living Wage Campaign. "We don't really know about it," a group of dining-hall employees at Lowell told me. Is PSLM another example of solipsistic undergraduate activism? "It's hard for employees to go to one-hour weekly meetings with students when they're working two jobs," McKean conceded. "There's definitely a disconnect, but one that we're trying to reduce."

The Living Wage Campaign recently held a worker-outreach workshop to address such issues. Ed Childs, a chef in Adams House and steward in the Hotel Restaurant Institutional Employees and Bartenders Union, listened to students' concerns about talking with staff members. "I feel most uncomfortable raising personal questions," one student said. "Asking 'How much money do you make?' and 'What are your benefits?' is difficult. These are the most important things to know, but you don't want people to think you're using them to get information." Another student asked Childs how to overcome staff skepticism about the campaign's goals. "How do you engage beyond an initial reaction of, 'That's never going to happen in a million years; I'm going back to mopping now'?" Childs encouraged the students to continue searching out employees' stories. "Workers like to talk," he said. "We're really isolated. In fact, we're so isolated that some of us lose the ability to converse....You get to know workers over a couple of conversations. Reach out to someone you already know, and meet other workers through them. Show them that your goals and their goals are similar. It's a long, hard struggle. Because if it was easy, it would all be done by now."

In some cases, a language barrier prevents students from communicating fully with employees. That is particularly the case with janitorial staff, whose services the Faculty of Arts and Sciences now receives through a subcontractor, UNICCO. Overwhelmingly, however, the sense I received of staff feelings toward students was one of neutrality. A woman who has worked for seven years at Harvard said, "I think they're alright. They're just kids." In many ways, undergraduates simply create a 6,684-strong occupational hazard--we just come with the job.

Throughout my interviews, I wondered whether people felt they could be honest with me. Halpern experienced similar reservations, which he feels stemmed from a fear for job security. "I think people are really scared of going on record against the institution," he said. "This may be due to the fact that there is this public aura of Harvard as being above the law. My hunch was that many people resented the students, but actually, in a lot of the interviews it didn't come up. I wondered if they affiliated us with their bosses, or identified us with a different social class. I think people are just aware of the idea of class subconsciously. I wanted employees to address those issues...but I found people didn't like talking about them."

Keeping Harvard's custodial, food service, transportation, and security staff visible still occupies Halpern. He recently received a grant to revisit his independent study project. He wants to photograph and conduct more interviews with employees, and has already starting making portraits of those he knows best. Several book publishers have expressed interest. During our recent conversation, I asked Halpern whether he felt uncomfortable playing the role of ethnographer, recording for an audience other people's real-life experience. "That's a huge issue," he said. "I guess the way I dealt with it was to try to keep myself out of the interviews and just use their words."

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the landmark WPA collaboration between photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee '32, the two documented sharecroppers' lives in the 1930s. Harvard in the year 2001 bears no resemblance to the post-Depression South. The HUDS staff are not sharecroppers, and comparing undergraduates to landowners is reductionist, at best. But I nonetheless recognized, in Agee's words, my own effort to address the relationship between students and staff: "If complications arise," he wrote, "that is because [the authors] are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously."

Read more articles by: Kirstin Butler

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