April 25, 2001

Harvard Students Conduct Sit-In

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Cambridge, MA — For a week running, demonstrators on Harvard Yard have been chanting to the beat of drums and tambourines. “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Harvard’s wages!”

Behind Harvard Yard’s burgeoning “tent city” — where many demonstrators have been camping overnight — is Massachusetts Hall, the university’s administration building. Inside, 40 students are on their seventh day of a sit-in that marks the escalation of a three-year campaign to bring a living wage to Harvard.

Their demands remain the same: a $10.25 per hour wage and benefits that reflects the costs of living near Harvard.

“We couldn’t have anticipated such support – everyone from dining workers bringing us food to 100 members of the faculty endorsing us,” said Aaron Bartley, one of the students occupying Mass. Hall.

The Living Wage Campaign, organized by Harvard’s Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) has attracted a number of high-profile supporters. Yesterday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) held a meeting in support of the living wage at his Washington office with Harvard President Neil Rudenstine and members of Congress who are Harvard alumni. Kennedy, who spoke in front of Mass. Hall on Saturday, was prevented from entering the building by police.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) have also publicly voiced support, as have authors Howard Zinn, Cornell West and Naum Chomsky.

Activists insist that more than 1,000 Harvard workers – including janitors, dining hall staff and security workers – are paid wages as low as $6.50 per hour without benefits.

The university says that only 372 workers earn less than $10 per hour and that these workers are represented by unions, which can bargain collectively on their behalf.

But many protesters have claimed that Harvard’s practice of outsourcing jobs to lower-paying firms is itself a form of union-busting. According to Bartley, approximately 750 people — half of Harvard’s non-administrative staff — are contracted workers.

Harvard has yet been unwilling to negotiate on the issue of wages. Last May, an ad hoc committee of faculty and administrators responded to the Living Wage Campaign by recommending to expand workplace education programs, subsidize health-care and instate strict guidelines for contracting.

Amy Offner, a senior coordinating events and rallies outside of Mass. Hall, has called these policies evasive and ineffective.

“Sure ESL classes are just fine, but they don’t pay the rent. And the benefit extension is a joke. Only 19 employees have received these benefits. There is a $100 to $200 copayment required to access them, so workers are staying on Medicaid rather than joining Harvard’s plan because it’s more expensive and no better.”

Harvard annually spends two to three percent of its $19 billion endowment. Adopting a living wage would cost the Ivy League $10 million a year.

In addition to daily rallies and marches, demonstrations have also included more festive events such as comedy skits and concerts by a string quartet.

Archived article by Sana Krasikov