End to ‘poverty wages’ only a matter of time


On December 19 the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policy (HCECP) released its recommendations on outsourcing and the Living Wage issue. Thus, another chapter was written in the struggle that has seen thousands from all over the nation call upon the University to recognize its moral imperative to treat low-wage service workers with the dignity they deserve as human beings and full members of the Harvard community. On January 18 the formal comment period on these recommendations closes, leaving it up to the University’s new president, Lawrence Summers, to decide whether the chapter titled “Poverty Wages at the World’s Richest University” will indeed be brought to an appropriate end once and for all.

As individuals who were members of the HCECP, we firmly believe that President Summers can and should recognize the significance of the opportunity before him. As members of the wider Harvard community, we believe that the only way to guarantee that this chapter not be re-opened in the near future will be to regard our Committee’s recommendations critically in the spirit befitting an academic institution like Harvard. First, President Summers should indeed honor the positive step forward that our recommendations represent through instituting a policy of wage parity between direct and outsourced employees at Harvard and raising starting wages above $11.30 per hour through impending contract negotiations. Our committee’s work found that both by comparisons with Harvard’s past wages, and by local cost of living considerations, a wage of $12 or more is a minimal benchmark, and we hope this is reflected in the University’s final decision. Equally importantly, however, President Summers should take the independent initiative to go beyond these recommendations to absolutely guarantee that workers’ needs not go unmet and unrecognized in the future through wage erosion and stagnation. The necessity for such an “independent initiative” is not obscure. Rather, it is at the heart of the “Living Wage” idea that the thousands who turned Harvard Yard into a “tent city” last spring have been educating the University about for several years now.

As members of HCECP, we well understand the tremendous opportunity President Summers has before him to honor the community’s call by buttressing a parity-wage policy with a clear mechanism for annual adjustment of the wage standards that our committee recommended. This understanding derives from our own intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of our Committee’s final report. Let us be clear: No one should doubt that the immediate adoption and transparent implementation of the HCECP’s recommendations would result in significant improvements in the lives of workers at Harvard. Besides wages, this includes immediate actions to make benefits affordable and accessible, and to institute an implementation process with broadly based participation of workers, students and faculty. However, as the vast majority of students and workers in the committee wrote in our concurrence, we strongly believe these recommendations did not go far enough — they failed to acknowledge fully the impetus behind Living Wage campaigns: namely, that some wages and working conditions are simply unacceptable.

For the 1,000-plus low-wage workers still earning poverty wages, a fuller commitment to a Living Wage as a permanent safeguard is not, of course, an academic issue. Our concern is that with a parity wage recommendation alone the University might create new job categories at lower real wage levels in the future, or that the University might simply choose to bargain without good faith and again exact real wage concessions from workers. As our findings of facts amply revealed, these scenarios have unfortunately been all too common in the University’s past. And the example of Harvard’s security guards — who have almost all been outsourced — shows the fragility of the “parity only” solution: With sufficient union-busting, there is no internal benchmark for wages.

To its credit, the committee suggested a partial remedy to prevent wage stagnation: that wages will rise with cost of living if there is a bargaining impasse after an union contract expires. However, the value of this clause as a policy is limited: The management can still easily coerce workers to sign away basic standards, creating new poverty wage jobs. Harvard does not negotiate over child labor through collective bargaining, and poverty level wages should be similarly prohibited. It is indeed incumbent upon a moral institution to set such standards, and the principles identified in our Committee’s report acknowledge as much. However, the imperishability of the principles must be matched by the permanence of institutions that are put in place to enshrine them. In the spirit of President Summers’ own admirable comments expressing concern for the welfare of Harvard’s service workers (made just before the release of our report), therefore, we urge him to set a precedent for Harvard as an employer, befitting its reputation as an educator, by mandating a Living Wage standard as a future safeguard along with accepting the existing recommendations for a parity wage policy.

It is, perhaps, no mere irony of timing that as the rest of the country prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, President Summers will decide whether to take the necessary steps to ensure that Harvard’s 1,000-plus low-wage service workers, overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants, never be left to work for poverty wages again. Just three days before Harvard’s janitors officially launch the struggle around their contract reopening on January 21, then, President Summers will have ample opportunity to do Dr. King’s memory proud. As recent headlines about wranglings with the University’s African-American Studies department over issues of diversity and support for affirmative action indicate, President Summers is only beginning to write the story of “Harvard and racial justice” during his tenure. A real commitment to the dignity of the many faces of color, amongst others, who allow Harvard to function will, no doubt, serve as a most welcome first chapter.