Wage Committee Urges Pay Hikes for Harvard Workers

PSLM charges recommendations fall short, will continue fight

Six months after the University ended the longest building occupation in its history with a promise to reexamine workers’ wages, a high-ranking committee today called for substantial pay hikes for Harvard employees and blamed increased outsourcing of workers for eroding real wages on campus.

The Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policy, convened after last spring’s Mass. Hall takeover, recommended in a report released today that the University reopen union negotiations to boost wages for the school’s 1,000 lowest paid service employees to at least $10.83 to $11.30 per hour.

The recommended hikes exceed the $10.25 rallying cry of last spring’s Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) sit-in and the $10.68 “living wage” established by the city of Cambridge, but the report as a whole falls short of PSLM’s expectations.

PSLM members predicted “turmoil ahead for Harvard” if University President Lawrence H. Summers does not go beyond the report’s recommendations to enact a living wage tied to yearly cost of living increases and provide better support for unions.

Summers will decide whether or not to accept the committee’s recommendations after a “comment period” which will extend through Jan. 18, according to a statement released yesterday.

During the comment period, Summers will solicit feedback from administrators and faculty members.

Summers praised the report as a “comprehensive and very constructive document that outlines a promising direction for the future,” and pledged to work quickly to implement “appropriate measures” following the comment period.

If implemented, the recommendations will result in a significant pay hike for both directly employed and subcontracted employees.

While the committee stopped short of calling for an explicit ban on outsourcing, the recommendations require contractors to pay wages and benefits that are at least equal to those paid to unionized Harvard employees.

The recommended wage boosts would cost Harvard between $2.4 and $3.7 million per year, the committee estimated.

Committee members voted unanimously to back the report at a meeting last Thursday.

But almost half of the committee—eight of 19 total members—submitted statements that call for a “backstop” wage, a minimum wage floor similar to a living wage.

“I think the absence of a living wage is something that screams out,” said Benjamin L. McKean ’02, a member of both the wage committee and PSLM.

“This is a great opportunity for [Summers] to show leadership and do more,” McKean said. “I see the committee’s recommendations as a floor for the options now available for the president. For him to do less would be inconceivable.”

A Moral Obligation

The committee’s report adopted strong language—similar to that employed by PSLM’s living wage campaign—criticizing labor practices on campus.

Steep declines in the real wages of Harvard’s lowest paid service employees—a 13 percent drop over the past seven years for some custodians—“distressed” the committee, and members heard “powerful and often troubling” testimony from employees about the experience of working at Harvard.

“The committee heard accounts of lower-paid service workers at Harvard being unaware of their rights on campus, being uncertain how to assert them, or being fearful that asserting them would result in retaliation from management,” the report stated.

Harvard, the committee concluded, has an “obligation to be a good employer.”

“A good employer should work to ensure that its lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers share in economic prosperity and do not disproportionately and inappropriately bear the brunt of adjustments to economic and financial hardship,” the report stated.

The committee called on Harvard to adopt a code of workplace conduct and urged Summers to issue a “strong” statement about workplace expectations.

“All employees on the Harvard campus should be treated with dignity and respect by supervisors, fellow workers and other members of the Harvard community and enjoy rights to the highest levels of freedom of expression consistent with the University’s goal of being a beacon of intellectual inquiry and learning,” the report stated.

Making It Work

The committee urged Harvard to “raise pay immediately”—but to do so through the means of collective bargaining.

Harvard must reopen its contracts with its service unions to negotiate for higher wages.

The report said committee members “expect” Harvard and its service unions to agree on wages that do not fall below the range of $10.83 to $11.30 per hour—a range defined by the recently negotiated contracts of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) and Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee (HERE) Local 26.

The lowest-paid HUCTW employees currently make $10.83 per hour and lowest-paid HERE workers bring home $11.30 per hour, according to the report.

In addition to boosting wages of Harvard employees, the University must also raise the pay of subcontracted employees to equally high levels, the report recommended.

Currently, about 400 Harvard employees and 600 outsourced workers earn less than $10.68, the figure established by Cambridge as its living wage.

As part of the compromise that ended last spring’s sit-in, the custodial workers union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 254, is due to have its contract up for renegotiation in four weeks.

The report stated that after the University’s negotiations with SEIU Local 254, Harvard should “quickly” move into negotiations with the dining service and security guard and parking workers unions. The committee suggests May 2002 as a deadline for this set of negotiations.

The report includes a strong indictment of outsourcing, blaming the practice of using outside contractors for driving down wages on campus.

“Outsourcing should not be used to lower wages and weaken the unions representing Harvard’s employees,” the report stated.

The committee recommended that a “parity” wage and benefits policy be applied to all potential contractors.

“We believe that the solution here is to try to fix the system, not gut the system,” said Professor of Economics Lawrence F. Katz, the chair of the committee, in an interview yesterday.

Instead of an explicit ban on outsourcing, he said ensuring parity would take away the University’s incentive to contract out work as a cost-cutting mechanism while maintaining the positive aspects of outsourcing—“innovation, productivity and competition,” Katz said.

Creating a wage floor by adopting a living wage, Katz said, would encourage subcontractors to merely pay the minimum.

“The wage floor could also become a kind of wage ceiling,” the report stated.

Many members, therefore, felt adopting a living wage would address “the symptoms and not the causes” of low wages at Harvard.

But McKean and seven other members of the committee signed concurring opinions that advocated wage floor, in addition to the parity wage and benefits policy.

“We remain convinced that the only way to ensure that wages will keep pace with the cost of living is to adopt a living wage policy,” McKean wrote.

What’s Next?

According to the report, the committee plans to reconvene in May to assess the University’s progress in implementing the recommendations.

But committee members will not know until after Jan. 18 whether Summers will choose to accept the recommendations.

“I would hope the president takes these recommendations very seriously,” Katz said yesterday.

“I think it would be a mistake if the University didn’t accept it,” said committee member Matthew Milikowsky ’02. “These recommendations have been unanimously accepted by a very diverse group who spent a lot of time thinking about these issues.”

In addition, the committee recommended that the University set up a system of implementation guidelines, including an annual public release of data on lower-paid workers at Harvard.

For its part, PSLM has pledged to continue pushing its living wage campaign—which will soon be entering its fourth year of activity—rallying in support of higher wages, increased benefits and stronger support for unions.

PSLM members said they plan to hold a series of actions today in Cambridge, coordinated with demonstrations at the Harvard Clubs of New York City and San Francisco.

And just two days ago, a group of Harvard alumni issued their own report calling for a living wage, claiming that Harvard employees are paid so little they are eligible for food stamps. The report compared workers’ wages at Harvard to those at other Boston schools—and concluded that Harvard’s wages come up short.

Making History

The committee, whose broad representation includes faculty, union members and students, was formed as a compromise to end PSLM’s Mass. Hall sit-in last spring.

The committee was charged by former University President Neil L. Rudenstine to research labor issues—including a living wage, worker benefits and outsourcing—and advise Summers on a set of recommendations by Dec. 19.

With 19 members including 10 faculty members, three unionized employees, two administrators and four students, the breadth of the committee’s membership alone makes it unique.

The committee chaired by Katz is not the first University committee to examine wages in response to PSLM’s activism. After 13 months of research, the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies released a report in May 2000.

Led by Weatherhead Professor of Business Administration D. Quinn Mills and made up of faculty and administrators, the committee refused to address the question of pay hikes, instead suggesting increased health benefits and worker training in place of a wage floor such as the one proposed by PSLM.

PSLM repeatedly termed the Mills report inadequate for workers’ needs, and accused the Harvard administration of dragging its feet in making benefits accessible to workers.

Last spring’s sit-in came in response to the perceived unresponsiveness of the Harvard administration. After the three-week long occupation ended, PSLM members emerged with high hopes for the new committee structure put in place.

Meetings for the Katz Committee began this past May with 20 members, but Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88 resigned from the committee in October, before the Oct. 22 forum releasing preliminary data, claiming that the committee favored a pro-living wage agenda.

The committee continued on schedule after Hoxby’s departure, convening at least once per week.

Meetings included presentations from a wide variety of sources, including administrators discussing outsourcing and labor relations and perspectives from union members and workers.

The committee also solicited comments on its website.

“I think that the process that was set up with the committee, whatever its origins, was a very good process,” Katz said.

“Minds were changed. The committee process worked well,” he continued. “We came up with a better set of policies that will do more for workers than anything we had to begin with. What is remarkable about this process is that a whole set of diverse viewpoints unanimously accepted the recommendations.”

—Staff writer Daniela J. Lamas can be reached at lamas@fas.harvard.edu.