Community rallies for living wage, as globalization marches on

BY CLIFFORD GINN

On Wednesday, April 18, 46 students from the various Harvard schools commenced a sit-in at Massachusetts Hall (one of Harvard’s administrative buildings), demanding that the University pay all of its workers a living wage of $10.25 an hour, with benefits. The group included HLS students Aaron Bartley ’01, Faisal Chaudhry ’03, Fatma Marouf ’02 and Ashwini Sukthankar ’02. As of this writing, they are still there, and vigils, demonstrations, speeches and even celebrations continue around the clock outside Massachusetts Hall. Politicians such as Senator Edward Kennedy and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich have come to offer speeches of support in front of the occupied building, Senator Paul Wellstone has sent a letter of support, and numerous local and state politicians have come to the rallies as well. Students, alumni, faculty, union and nonunion workers, advocacy and political groups, and citizens from the Boston area continue to gather in Harvard Yard, to ask why some employees at the wealthiest university on the planet still have to work 90 hours a week to provide a decent home for their families.

For over two years, the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) has been presenting these demands to Harvard’s administration, educating the community within and outside the University, rallying overwhelming support among students, student organizations, faculty, alumni and other quarters, and drawing media attention to the conditions under which Harvard’s least fortunate workers live. Meanwhile, the University has increasingly replaced permanent employees with contracted labor, thereby escaping Cambridge’s living wage ordinance and any benefit requirements, and creating downward pressure on union labor wages. Harvard pays workers as little as $6.50 per hour without benefits, forcing many of them to work 90 hour weeks, eat in soup kitchens and live under the constant threat of eviction from their homes. After months of increasing unwillingness on the Administration’s part to even discuss the issue further, the PSLM decided that civil disobedience was the only avenue left.

As the Harvard community rallied around the living wage campaign this weekend, 20 to 30,000 citizens from around the world descended on Quebec City to protest talks on the proposed Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA), which would extend a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) like “free trade” regime to the entire Western Hemisphere (except for Cuba, apparently the only “non-democracy” in the hemisphere). The details of the proposed agreement are not known because, as with NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade Uruguay Round, which created the World Trade Organization, the agreement has not been made publicly available. Negotiations took place within a fenced off area of the city, and Canada strove mightily to turn away protesters at the border.

In cities all around the world, citizens rallied in solidarity with the Quebec City protesters, and Cambridge was no exception. An anti-FTAA rally outside Mass. Hall on Saturday brought representatives from labor, environmental, human rights and other groups together to draw connections between globalization, growing corporate power, poverty, pollution, and human rights abuses. Harvard Dining Hall worker Ed Childs talked about the stagnation of wages in this country, and how monied interests have consistently attempted to breed division between blacks and whites, environmentalists and labor, first world and third world, in order to thwart union efforts to secure a higher standard of living. He stressed the importance of students and workers supporting racial justice, environmental protection and human rights. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also discussed the stagnation of real wages in recent decades, stating that if the minimum wage in 1977 were adjusted for inflation, it would be at least $7.35 an hour (the current minimum wage is $5.15 an hour). He urged students to follow the example of their predecessors in all the major social justice movements of the last century and use their influence to call the rest of the nation to arms. Harvard Professor Juliet Schor, an economist and chair of the Women’s Studies Department, debunked the myth that globalization brings increased prosperity to all people, noting that absolute and relative poverty have increased dramatically as globalization has proceeded. She also discussed how some of the most destructive products of globalization, including the acceleration of global warming (resulting from increased shipping and the carbon dioxide emissions that entails), will disproportionately affect the poor, who can ill afford to move from flooded areas, and will have great difficulty adapting to changing climate conditions. A human rights worker from Colombia addressed the crowd in Spanish (with a translator), revealing how the “war on drugs” in Colombia has a great deal to do with securing oil resources in the region. The $50 billion in U.S. aid that goes to Colombia helps fund rightwing paramilitary groups, who systematically execute the indigenous peoples who stand in the way of resource extraction. He explained that increasing globalization will only give the oil companies participating in this massacre greater power and a broader market for their ill-gotten gains.

The community members in Harvard Yard and the protesters in Quebec City and elsewhere recognize that the circles of power are closing quickly, and many of the progressive gains of the last several decades may soon crumble as a result. The rising tide of economic prosperity in this last decade has indeed raised all the yachts, but the poor have not fared so well, and the beneficiaries of globalization’s largess have no intention of sharing. Harvard University’s endowment has grown exponentially, and yet the idea of allowing workers to live with some degree of dignity has become increasingly repugnant to the Administration. The United States is riding on the longest peacetime economic expansion in its history, yet income disparity is at an all time high in relative and absolute terms. Twenty percent of our children live in poverty, with another 20 percent in near poverty, our prison population has almost doubled in the last 8 years, and environmental, health, safety and occupational regulation have been systematically gutted. All this happened during a “liberal” administration, and President Bush has made clear his intention to accelerate all of these trends as best he can.

Even if it were possible to eliminate the many market failures inherent in a “free trade” regime, any free trade agreement negotiated in a world where wealth and power are held by so few will necessarily further concentrate wealth and power in the same hands. The staunchest Clinton apologists acknowledge that the side agreements on labor and environment, which President Clinton attached to NAFTA in order to get his party’s endorsement, have failed miserably, but the NAFTA tribunal has meanwhile justified the dire predictions made by progressives at the time. Among other things, the tribunal has determined that: Canadian television has nothing to do with culture, a state’s refusal to allow a corporation to reopen a hazardous waste facility and poison a city’s water supply is a “regulatory taking” compensable at an exorbitant sum, and that a state’s refusal to allow use of a carcinogenic gasoline additive, which tends to find its way into water supplies, is a similar “taking.” Naturally, the tribunal answers to no American, Canadian or Mexican citizen. As decision-making moves further politically and geographically from affected citizens, democracy suffers, and humanitarian and environmental concerns follow closely behind.

As even the New York Times has (finally) acknowledged, the protesters in Quebec City know perfectly well why they are there. They see that increased corporate power, combined with decreased corporate and governmental accountability, may well lead to the destruction of everything they hold dear. They can no more rely on their “representatives” in government to consider the
ir concerns in these negotiations, than can the Harvard community rely on the Administration to respond to the overwhelming support the Living Wage Campaign enjoys. The only recourses for citizens at this point are peaceful assembly and civil disobedience. However, as the Living Wage Campaign has demonstrated, this need not be a purely solemn undertaking. With music, chants and creative endeavors, we can celebrate the ideals we cherish and the power we have as a community to protect those ideals, when we stand together.

Please come out to Harvard Yard to support the Living Wage Campaign. You can get more information on the campaign and how you can help at www.livingwagenow.com.

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