Living Wage — The right prescription


For the past three years, a growing proportion of our community has rallied around the moral standard that Harvard workers deserve pay, benefits and working conditions that reflect their dignity as human beings. Last week’s huge outpouring of support for janitors demonstrated that the Harvard community is as mobilized as ever around the demand for a living wage for all Harvard employees. Thanks to work of the thousands who attended this rally and previous ones like it, the crisis of poverty on Harvard’s campus is finally beginning to receive the attention that it deserves. Now the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP) and President Summers must provide the right solution.

This is a dangerous time for Harvard. We are faced with the opportunity to finally cure a disease that has lingered in our university’s system for far too long. The right cure is one that attacks the root of the problem, not just its current symptoms. Only an insane or sadistic doctor would tell a tuberculosis patient not to bother taking the rest of an antibiotics dose merely because the symptoms had subsided. That’s because partial treatment of tuberculosis allows much more virulent, life-threatening strains to emerge years later. Similarly, a solution that reduces the symptoms of today’s crisis without providing a cure threatens to bring our community even greater disaster in the future. If the administration does not commit to a Living Wage floor that rises with the cost of living, the immense power imbalance between Harvard and the workers who maintain it will return poverty to our campus within a few years; its cure will then be much more difficult to attain. The HCECP and the Harvard administration cannot diffuse our moral indignation by paying the community lip service with short-term fixes that force it to repeat the same battles every few years.

The HCECP is charged with the task of collecting data on employment conditions at Harvard, soliciting the views of the committee and presenting recommendations that “reflect a humane concern for the well-being of all the individuals who work here.” The data they collected show that real wages of workers at Harvard have fallen faster and farther than anyone but the workers themselves had imagined. Hundreds upon hundreds of letters from students, workers, faculty and community members poured in arguing that a Living Wage floor, a ban on outsourcing service work and protection of the right to organize were necessary to ensure the basic well-being of Harvard workers.

In formulating their recommendations, members of the committee must remember the real driving force behind all of the displays of support for these policies as the way to help workers: Our community demands justice and will accept no less. This demand goes beyond simply a call for improvement in the lives of people who currently work here. It is a demand that Harvard’s actions reflect the principles and values of those who make up the Harvard community. Short-term political “fixes” that help to blunt the worst effects of Harvard’s employment and contracting policies are not acceptable alternatives to strong and principled solutions that actually eliminate poverty from Harvard’s campus for good.

The title of the recent rally was not “Placate Us With Temporary Benefits,” it was “Justice for Janitors.” Nearly a thousand people marched through the Yard in support of principles: the principle that workers should have a voice in our community, that they should be paid enough to meet the basic costs of living, that they should be given equal treatment for equal work. Poverty wages, anti-union practices and outsourcing at Harvard must be ended not merely because to do so would help workers, but because they violate these principles.

A principled offer to raise wages now must include a guarantee that this commitment will last into the future. The obligations to pay workers fairly today will be just as pressing tomorrow. The importance of treating those who work to keep our community clean, safe and well-fed with dignity and fairness does not decline over time, so there is no reason that our commitment to paying a living wage should.

We must be profoundly suspicious of any proposal that does not clearly reflect these principles of justice. So-called “pragmatic solutions” are designed to dampen the urgency of our cause so that the amazing coalition which has arisen to respond to this crisis will dissipate by the time that increases in the cost of living have driven workers back into poverty. Sure, there will be people willing to rebuild the coalition from scratch and do whatever it takes to make Harvard confront the crisis of poverty again. But the administration has an opportunity now to show that committees and other “traditional channels” can solve our community’s problems effectively. If the committee process fails as a mechanism for the university to act on the values of its community, it is proof that the university’s decision-making processes are fundamentally flawed and that Harvard only responds to community priorities when pressured by massive demonstrations and civil disobedience.

Ari Weisbard (College’02-03) is co-chair of Progressive Jewish Alliance and a member of the Living Wage Campaign.

Jorge Elorza (Law School ’03) is Treasurer of the Harvard Worker’s Center and a member of the Living Wage Campaign.