HLS students, faculty lend support to Living Wage sit-in

BY MIKE WISER

On Wednesday, April 18, at around 1:30 p.m., 48 Harvard University students, accompanied by some press and faculty observers, opened the door to Massachusetts Hall near Harvard Square, walked in carrying crates of food and water and spread out into the various open offices along the first floor hallway. Then they refused to leave.

Among the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) demonstrators who were still in the building when the RECORD went to press a week later were HLS students Aaron Bartley ’01, Fatima Marouf ’02, Ashwini Sakthankar ’02 and Faisal Chaudhry ’03. The students have promised to stay until the University pledges to increase the minimum wage it pays employees to $10.25.

Inside Mass Hall

The tension was palpable as the demonstrators entered the building, which houses the offices of outgoing University President Neil L. Rudenstein, according to Chaudhry. The students distributed two explanatory letters, one to the support staff in the building and one to the University police department. After that, the students read a list of five demands. The most important of these demands is the proposed salary increase, along with the creation of a board to oversee the raise.

Related to this is the students’ second demand – that the University join the Worker Rights Consortium, a group that monitors the factory conditions where University apparel is produced.

University administrators have refused to meet with the students, although Ruden-stine issued a statement to the University on Tuesday. In his statement, Rudenstein said that a Faculty Committee convened to study employee compensation had reviewed proposals to increase wages for the lowest paid workers, but had decided on a different approach. “I believed then, and believe now, that the committee’s recommended approach (focused on investments in innovative education and job-skills training programs for service employees, as well as expanded access to health and other benefits) is both progressive and sound. It also respects the collective bargaining process as the established means to set wages for employees represented by unions,” he wrote.

In regards to the sit-in campaign, Rudenstine wrote: “The view that efforts at coercion and disruption, as opposed to discussion and persuasion, represent a proper means to achieve a desired result is mistaken, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university.”

A week into the sit-in, Chaudhry said that the mood in the building remains “very positive.” It feels like a campaign headquarters during an election, he said. Inside, the demonstrators are busy organizing press coverage and looking for supporters on cell phones and laptops they brought with them, which are connected to the Internet.

A few non-HLS students left the sit-in on Friday, although Chaudhry said they were “ambassadors” sent to help organize demonstrations and the tent city that has sprung up in Harvard Yard.

Outside the building, organizers have organized a steady stream of speeches from faculty, local politicians – such as Senator Ted Kennedy – and workers who support the campaign.

Signs, Buttons, and HLS

While a lot of the protesters inside and outside Mass. Hall have come from other schools (particularly the College and the Kennedy School), a number of HLS faculty and students have shown their support for the protestors in both Harvard Yard and on the law school campus.

According to organizers, a number of faculty members, including Professors Duncan Kennedy, Lucie White ’81, Jon Hanson, Lani Guinier and Christine Desan have shown up to the protest and some have held class outside the building.

Kennedy told the RECORD that he got involved because “I think it is a simple and important principle that Harvard should pay a living wage, and I feel ashamed as a faculty member of the Harvard community that some of our needs are met by workers paid less than that.”

Kennedy added that he strongly supported the sit-in. “The sit-in dramatizes the moral illegitimacy of the administration’s position and the depth of the opposition of those who have risked disciplinary action against them,” he said.

White said that she has been working with low income people for twenty years, but “[r]arely do you have the benefit of a wider social movement to draw attention to the issue.” When she discovered that two of her students were participating in the sit-in, she decided to change the location of the class. “We stuck to our lesson plan, clustering in front of a window of Mass. Hall, so Fatma and Ashwini could participate in the discussion. The policeman guarding that corner of the building seemed very engaged in the small group demonstrations and ensuing discussion. The whole thing went quite well,” White said.

HLS students have been involved in a number of ways. Paul Lekas ’03, for example, has been helping to coordinate the media campaign and dealing with the press. Michael Mirarch ’01 has been involved with the campaign since his 1L year, when he helped to set up the campaign’s website. Now Mirarch says that he’s helping to publicize rallies and doing the “legwork” for the campaign.

Mirarch said that he got involved after listening to the stories of workers, specifically the plight of one janitor who was forced to move into a homeless shelter. Mirarch added, “Many low-wage workers on this campus qualify for food stamps. And here they’re working for the wealthiest university in the world, a university with a $19 billion dollar endowment.”

Other students have not been involved from the beginning, but like Dmitri Evseev ’01 they have turned up to rallies, worn pins and put up signs of support in their windows. A member of Catalyst, Evseev added, “It has definitely made me more optimistic about the possibility of getting people really excited about reform and change.”

In general, supporters like Cliff Ginn ’01, who helped to create a Living Wage banner signed by HLS students, are optimistic that the campaign will be successful either in the short term or long run. Chaudhry pointed to a 17-day sit-in at Johns Hopkins as evidence that such protests can be successful. While officials at Johns Hopkins did not agree to a “living wage,” they signed a document agreeing that “compensation is critical” to the lives of employees.

A War of Press Releases

While the Administration and the protestors have yet to convene negotiations, there has been a flurry of press releases issued by both the University and the demonstrators attempting to justify their positions.

According to the demonstrators, the University pays employees wages that make it impossible for them to survive unless they work 60 or 80 hours a week. The demonstrators also claim that protests were the only option that they had left since discussion with the school had failed.

However, both Rudenstine’s statement and a press release on the University’s website argued that Living Wage Campaign was looking at compensation too narrowly. The University points to a comprehensive study of the issue undertaken by a faculty and administration committee.

Chaired by Harvard Business School Professor D. Quinn Mills, the committee found that fewer than 3 percent of employees earned less than $10.25 an hour. Rejecting the Living Wage Proposal, the committee instead proposed expanded education programs for employees (such as teaching English as a Second Language), expanded access to health insurance and increased benefits for casual workers.

On the idea of a living wage, the Committee’s report argued that improving other benefits was more important. Providing education would help employees improve their marketability, the Committee noted. The Committee wrote that adjusting pay for entry-level jobs would require, as a matter of equity, “corresponding increases for many others [in] the same job categories, as well as those in adjacent job classifications, whether or not such adjustments are appropriate in term
s of either length of service, skill level or job responsibility. This is not a sound basis for setting compensation when satisfactory institutional systems, such as collective bargaining and job classifications, are in place and working.”

The Committee’s findings have been heavily criticized by the Living Wage Campaign. Kennedy told the RECORD, “I found the Administra-tion’s explanation for its rejection of a wage floor strikingly weak. It was as though they did not dare articulate the principles of reliance on the market and non-responsibility for community members that seem to underlie their decision.”

On the PSLM web page, the group offers a point-by-point refutation of the school’s statement. The students claim that the three percent figure underestimated the number of affected workers, because it did not include employees who were contractors. They also claim that promised improvements in health care may not reach employees because the school may reduce the hours that employees work to a level disqualifying them from the benefits. The other benefits, they argue, are not a satisfactory substitute for a living wage.

The PSLM also claims that while the Committee did do a good enough job of looking at the effects of wages on workers, they were desperately out of touch. “[T]he committee met with just one worker during their months of study – and that was a worker whom students brought uninvited to one of the committee’s meetings. Here you had a committee of academics and administrators trying to figure out how to improve the lives of low wage workers on campus, and they weren’t even going to talk to a single worker,” Mirarch told the RECORD.

It is unclear how long the protest will last. Most students involved think the sit-in is unlikely to end in a physical removal by police, but they couldn’t rule out that the University would use force or disciplinary action to end the standoff. Some sort of compromise, like that achieved at Johns Hopkins, may be possible, but that will depend on whether the protestors or the Administration think they have any room to compromise.

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