Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Wage Wrangling

7.1.01

The sit-in capped a two-year-old campaign organized by the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) and aimed at securing a standard minimum wage for University workers of $10 per hour (later $10.25), corresponding to a figure adopted by the Cambridge city council for municipal employees. (See "Living Wages?" July-August 1999, page 68; "Treating Workers Too Casually," November-December 1999, page 82; and "Beyond Wages in the Workplace" and "'60s Generation Confronts '90s Protest," July-August 2000, pages 82-83).

Before the sit-in, the living-wage campaign had run the gamut of protest tactics. In 1999, students organized a silent walkout during the Commencement afternoon address by Alan Greenspan, chairman of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. The following March, as a presidential ad hoc committee prepared its report on wages and benefits, a noisy rally outside University Hall, focused mostly on sweatshop issues, drowned out part of the dialogue at a Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting. Other rallies featured movie stars and local government officials. Last December, living-wage demonstrators burst into the Massachusetts Hall holiday party and serenaded administrators with seasonal carols, the lyrics to which were modified to Grinch standards. And on February 14, PSLM members dropped in at the homes of Rudenstine, two administrators, and a dean to deliver living-wage valentines.

In the meantime, the University made, from its perspective, significant changes in its labor practices. Through joint negotiations and fact-finding with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, agreement was reached to end misuse of part-time "casual" employees, whose jobs do not come with employee benefits, and to compensate retroactively such workers who should have been eligible for regular employment (see the November-December 1999 article).

Harvard then extended programs to equip workers with basic skills (the University pays for the classes, which are offered during paid release time), offered health insurance to more part-time workers (few of whom have signed up for the relatively costly coverage), and required contractors to have the same health benefits. (See the July-August 2000 article; the report is available at www.provost.harvard.edu/adhoc/.) Significantly, the eight-member committee declined to recommend a uniform minimum wage, referring the determination of such issues to collective bargaining with unions.

That seemed, if anything, to fuel a revolution of rising expectations. As PSLM member Amy Offner '01 told this magazine last year, "What makes Harvard change is public humiliation and threats of embarrassment. When Harvard's good name gets sullied in the press, that's when Harvard gets scared."

The students' strategy thereafter seems, in retrospect, to have been shaped by the University's likely response. Rudenstine, who had been involved in trying to calm protests as a junior faculty member in the late 1960s, explained after the fact to a May 15 FAS meeting that he had suspected a sit-in might occur, and had determined in advance not to use any force to evict students, because "means have their own ethics." Waiting out a sit-in, he said, carried with it the cost to Harvard of prolonged and adverse news coverage, and the rising risks of accidents. But that strategy, if successfully pursued, would leave the University "better off as a community."

So it was that 46 students rushed into Massachusetts Hall on April 18, equipped with cellular phones, laptop computers, and the other accouterments of an Internet-age protest. They apparently expected a relatively short stay. As hours turned into days, relations between the students and administrative staff were tense, with students at times making disruptive noise and following, videotaping, and chanting slogans at employees. Working their website (www.livingwagenow.com) and media contacts, the PSLM members inside and those rallying in the Yard rapidly mobilized news coverage--who could resist slogans like, "Hey, Harvard, you've got cash/Why do you pay your workers trash?" and, in reference to the endowment, chalked messages on the sidewalks, such as "What part of $19 billion don't you understand?"

From the outset, Harvard's police permitted access to food and water, and open communications with fellow students, reporters, and sympathetic faculty members through windows, while preventing any reinforcements from entering. The students inside agreed not to tamper with property. Outside, a tent city of supporters--many not affiliated with Harvard--sprang up on the lawn; local politicians, U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy '54, and AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney stopped by to show solidarity or to speak at rallies.

As negotiations proceeded between two non-negotiable positions--the PSLM's demand for a $10.25 hourly living wage versus the administration's refusal to accede to a sit-in or to impose a wage standard outside collective bargaining--the whole affair took on an academic coloration. Where else would one find placards proclaiming "String Theorists for a Living Wage"? Or a request by the College's dean that protesters renounce late-night rallies (which disturbed study time), followed by a ban on the use of electronic amplification during reading period? In all, some 400 faculty members--one-fifth of the total--and perhaps a similar portion of the student body endorsed the sit-in.

In the end, Rudenstine, who had said he was initially disinclined to revisit the issue, and who would not, in any event, make substantive decisions without wide consultation, convened the second study committee. Through negotiations with labor leaders--AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka greeted the remaining 23 protesters as they exited May 8--the University agreed as well to freeze further outsourcing of jobs and to accelerate a contract renegotiation with the union for its custodial workers, with salary adjustments to be made retroactive.

On that note, once all the agreements were posted on the University website (www.news.harvard.edu/specials/workers/), the students filed out into the spring air, raised red roses, declared victory, enjoyed a final celebratory rally (Kennedy phoned in), and, by dinner time, had begun striking their tents and furling their banners. By the next morning, the Yard was clear, and the University's landscapers were readying the lawns for Commencement.

No one had been injured. Most of the University's operations had been sustained without interruption. A week later, the College Administrative Board reportedly put undergraduates involved in the sit-in on probation for three weeks; the Law School issued official reprimands; and the Kennedy School declined to take disciplinary action. With those punishments resolved, Benjamin L. McKean '02, a PSLM member who had stayed the course during the three-week sit-in and subsequently secured election as a student representative to the new committee, could look forward to several months of meetings with fellow members in which to press his fervently held belief in improving the workers' lot through a uniform Harvard minimum wage.