Janitors win raise, lose ‘living wage’

BY JONAS BLANK

After an intense, years-long campaign by HLS students, Harvard undergraduates and workers alike, Harvard’s janitors finally have a pay raise. But the question remains whether they got the pay increase they wanted.

By a vote of 270 to 8, Harvard janitors voted Friday to approve a newly negotiated contract which raises their hourly wage to $11.30 per hour, or $11.50 for workers with at least three years’ experience at the University. Those numbers will rise to $13.50 and $14 per hour, respectively, by October 2005. The Service Employees International Union Local 254, which represents the workers, had asked for starting wages of $14 per hour.

In addition to the wage increase, the new agreement requires that 60 percent of Harvard janitors be full-time employees, with full health and other benefits. It also mandates a “parity wage policy” that would require contracted janitors — who are typically paid less than their “in-house” counterparts — to receive similar pay and benefits.

Eighty-nine percent of contracted custodial workers and 82 percent of Harvard janitors earned less than $10 per hour last year, and many qualified for food stamps.

LWC members have declined to claim victory, however. Though the group’s initial minimum target was the $10.68 living wage established by the City of Cambridge, group members now say the current increase is inadequate. LWC members have estimated an appropriate living wage to be as high as $15 to $20 per hour.

“The agreement … demonstrates the significant progress the workers, students and community members have made over the past three years …,” said 3L Faisal Chaudhry, a Living Wage Campaign member. “That said, despite this progress, this contract reflects little change in Harvard’s fundamental lack of respect for its workers.”

Chaudhry pointed specifically to Harvard’s failure to enact a “wage floor” that would establish an ongoing, permanent living wage that would rise with inflation as the University’s starting pay rate.

“A rising wage floor that is tied in to cost of living is one crucial way in which the University could take poverty off the bargaining table,” Chaudhry said. “Without such a wage floor, there is ample reason … to fear that any gains in wages that are won through this next set of negotiations will be again eroded in subsequent contracts.”

Still, the new contract represents the most significant success yet in the LWC’s ongoing campaign. Formed in 1998, the group has engaged in a number of civil disobedience actions in its quest to secure pay increases for Harvard’s custodial and dining workers. The campaign reached a tense climax last April, when protesters — including HLS students, undergraduates and workers — occupied Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University’s main administrative building. Though the University initially declined to negotiate with the group, it formed the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies to study the matter.

Negotiations between the University and the union remained stalled until the beginning of last month, when Harvard University President Larry Summers agreed to accept the key recommendations of the HCECP report, which endorsed a pay rate of between $10.83 and $11.30. Dissatisfied by the progress of the negotiations, LWC members staged an additional protest on February 26. At that time, the University was refusing to include any language regarding the parity wage policy, and offering a starting wage of about $11 per hour.

In addition to its continued push for a permanent living wage for all workers, Chaudhry said the LWC also hopes to also participate in the contract renegotiations of Harvard’s dining and security workers in the coming months.

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