A Thousand Caged Birds

Romeo, 23, stops mopping the dining hall floor and looks at me. "Mira," he says. "I have seven people in my family. I have bills, rent, insurance. Not even two full time jobs at this salary would be enough."

Romeo is from EI Salvador and lives in Chelsea. He also works for Harvard, but Harvard denies this because technically a subcontractor hired him and Harvard hired only the subcontractor. Still, if you peek into the dining hall late at night, it is Romeo who cleans and sweeps and buffs the floor.

Tim, a senior on Dorm Crew, does virtually identical work. Except Tim started at a wage higher than what Romeo gets paid even after two years. Tim also gets a raise every semester, so his income is now $9.55 an hour.

Romeo is no exception. Over 1,000 workers who clean and cook and guard and serve at Harvard earn less than their student counterparts, despite seniority. Dishwashers paying for medicine, groceries and baby formula are making less then students looking for beer and book money. Sixty-year-old janitors for whom sanitation is a career are making less than 18-year-olds for whom Dorm Crew will appear under "other activities" on their resumes at best.

Harvard's violation of the equal pay for equal work dictum is simply shameful. Most students, including those in Dorm Crew and dining services, support paying workers the student rate. "I don't think it's really fair," says Tim from Dorm Crew. "If students do the same type of work, they [non-students] should get the same compensation that we do."

But even paying workers and students equally would not constitute fairness. Fairness would mean paying them significantly more than students. Why is that?

For months, students from the Harvard Living Wage Campaign have fought for a $10 per hour wage for all Harvard employees, because many full-time workers currently also qualify for food stamps and welfare and because they cannot afford to live where they work. Mince words if you must, but Harvard imports cheap labor from ghettos in Roxbury, Chelsea and Dorchester.

A living wage bumps employees and their families up to or slightly above the poverty line. It allows for dignified living, not just survival. It allows for food, clothing, shelter "and other amenities of life that you need," says Joe, a security guard who has served for over ten years. "Like a haircut. An $8 haircut."

The federal minimum wage used to do that, but no more. Adjusted to 1999 dollars and accounting for productivity growth, the minimum wage today would have to be $11.07. Since 1994, cities across the nation have recognized the need for fair pay and passed local living wage ordinances, first in Baltimore and then in dozens of cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. Last year, Boston passed a similar ordinance, raising the living wage to $8.23.

In Cambridge, the City Council is expected to pass a living wage ordinance of $10 this Friday. Still, such a measure would not necessarily bind Harvard, which does not benefit from Cambridge money (it does receive tax exemptions and other subsidies, however). The Harvard Living Wage Campaign, backed by the Undergraduate Council, simply wants the largest employer in Cambridge to mirror city standards.

The Harvard Living Wage Campaign asks the University to pay employees even more than students for the same services. This is ethically just and economically sensible.

I begin with the economic argument, though fiscal considerations ought to factor only minimally for two reasons. First, instituting the living wage for 1,000 workers would cost Harvard less than one half of a percent of its annual operating budget of over $1.5 billion. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Harvard's decisions as an educational institution, not as a disinterested corporation, carry didactic messages for its students.

The living wage will not result in significant labor cutbacks, despite arguments to the contrary. Romeo cleans the dining hall by himself; Joe alone watches the Science Center. They cannot be downsized. Most employees at Harvard work in the service sector where the labor market demand is fairly inelastic, and so a living wage does not risk their jobs.

Higher wages also lead to lower turnover, lower absenteeism, and higher morale-windfalls that offset increased labor costs; in the long run, the University might even save money. Cities that have passed living wage ordinances have not experienced the capital flight and labor retrenchment predicted by wide-eyed libertarian Cassandras.

But the ethical case for paying workers a living wage-even if it is higher than the student rate-is more fundamental to the Harvard Living Wage Campaign. The argument hinges on what legal scholar Ronald Dworkin defines as the difference between treatment as an equal and equal treatment. Treatment as an equal mandates that Harvard regard all its community members with equal concern and respect. This does not mean that all community members are equally capable, admirable or successful. It means that all members of the community are equally important. Equal treatment, on the other hand, is the arithmetically equal distribution of costs and benefits.

In some cases, treatment as an equal prescribes equal treatment, for example, when you split a pizza with your roommates. This is not the case with workers where treatment as an equal implies higher wages for workers. Bob, 48, works in the kitchen and faces an expiring rent subsidy. "It's scary," he says about his $7 per hour wage. "I'm saving everything I've got." Paying him the same amount a student earns to fund weekend activities and books would violate the treatment as an equal principle on two grounds. First, Bob's need for shelter would be relegated to the same rank as the Dorm Crew student's more trivial need for concert tickets or sourcebooks. Secondly, Bob does not expect the same drastic socioeconomic upturn that students do; for him and over a thousand others, their wage will change little over their lifetime.

At tomorrow's living wage rally at memorial Church, you won't see the employees whom the salary increase would affect. They won't be there to bear banners. They won't be there to chant, because they will be working and because they might get fired if they come.

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