Business as Usual on Living Wage

By Benjamin L. McKean

and Amy C. Offner

Two-and-a-half years ago, when the Living Wage Campaign was just beginning, it was hard to get a meeting with the administration. The first thing we ever did was send a letter to the president and provost to ask for one; they refused, and only recanted after two hundred people encircled Mass Hall for an hour chanting for a living wage and a meeting. At that point, they agreed to let us meet with the dean of students, someone who had nothing to do with labor policies. Since that time, dozens of demonstrations and thousands of signatures have made the administration change its approach. In the face of mounting community opposition, administrators have worked to coat themselves in the syrupy lacquer of feigned responsiveness. But after every meeting, they’ve gone back to business as usual: outsourcing jobs to cut benefits, reclassifying workers to cut wages and busting unions to eliminate any recourse Harvard workers have against assaults on their livelihoods and dignity.

For all our meetings with administrators, wages and benefits for Harvard’s low-wage workers are now worse than they were two-and-a-half years ago—worse even than they were just six months ago. By outsourcing jobs to firms that pay poverty-level wages and benefits, Harvard administrators consciously caused conditions to deteriorate. Perhaps the best examples of this happened last year, when most of us saw our house security guards replaced by subcontracted guards from Security Systems, Inc. This was culmination of the administration’s long-term effort to force out Harvard’s own guards who received living wages—an effort that has slashed the number of Harvard guards from roughly 120 to 18 and effectively busted the guards’ union. The savings that administrators realized were minimal, but the costs to our community were immense: because administrators refused to negotiate with the guards’ union as required by law, our guards had already gone four years without raises and a union contract. They now saw their wages cut overnight from roughly $12 to $8 per hour and their benefits similarly slashed. The people who guard our dorms today typically work 80 hours a week to compensate for these poverty wages, and they have no union through which to challenge this abuse. The rest of the Harvard community also suffers when the people who ensure our safety are wildly overworked and transferred frequently.

Just this semester, Harvard has subcontracted and reclassified hundreds more jobs with equally terrible consequences. In February, janitors at the Medical School saw their jobs outsourced. Not only will this slash wages and benefits for our janitors as it did for our guards, but it was again done dishonestly: according to Harvard’s own in-house custodial services, the bidding process was a farce, as administrators had already decided to give the contract to an outside firm. Meanwhile, over at the Business School, administrators are fighting to reclassify dining service workers in order to cut wages and benefits. Violating contractual clauses, administrators are unilaterally changing workers’ classification from “board op”—the classification of workers in our undergraduate dining halls—to “cash op,” the classification of workers in Loker Commons and the Greenhouse, who receive lower wages and no benefits. And Harvard is needlessly doing all this at a time of unprecedented wealth.

The administration’s intensifying drive to outsource is clear evidence that meetings are not and can never be enough to end poverty wages on campus. It is farcical to pretend that administrators take seriously the concerns of the thousands of students, faculty, alums, workers and community members who make up the Living Wage Campaign when their zeal for slashing wages proceeds unabated. We have met with the president, the provost, the vice-president for administration, the director of labor relations and on down the line countless times for years now, and we do not take these meetings lightly. We seriously and respectfully present moral, social and economic arguments for a living wage, give administrators evidence of preventable hardship on campus and ask for information on employment patterns.

But since President Neil L. Rudenstine’s committee of business professors and administrators released its report on low-wage labor last May, administrative responses to our concerns have essentially consisted of a single word: No. Rudenstine’s hand-picked committee rejected the idea of a living wage, they tell us, and the issue is now closed. Here, in fact, is what University spokesperson Joe Wrinn told the Independent about the potential for a change of policy on the living wage issue under president-elect Lawrence H. Summers: “No. Absolutely not. None whatsoever.” This is the administration’s idea of cooperation and dialogue.

As much as we would like it to be otherwise, the chance of genuine dialogue, much less achieving a living wage through it, is zero. Students, faculty, workers, alums, parents and community members have no power in meetings, and administrators continue to agree to meetings because it allows them to perpetuate the appearance that they are listening to the rest of us. And the Harvard Corporation has so much confidence in their power that they don’t even pretend to listen; they have refused to meet with us for almost a year.

When we speak with janitors on our campus who work three jobs, sleep four hours a night and haven’t gotten a raise in as many as 10 years, the administration’s actions come into clear focus as not simply disrespectful but morally appalling. It is disgusting and terrifying to see our University administration slap our janitors, our guards and our dining hall employees with wage cuts, benefit decreases and union busting—and pretend that these moves are technical adjustments rather than contributions to a social crisis in our community. It is disgusting to see that as Harvard’s endowment reaches astronomical proportions it is matched only by the administration’s ruthlessness in destroying human lives and dignity. And it is disgusting to witness the cold hypocrisy of Harvard administrators as they threaten, degrade and destroy the jobs of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers, then turn around and tell the press that they are cooperating to improve the lives of Harvard employees.

The Living Wage Campaign has given Harvard administrators more than two years to demonstrate their commitment to eliminating poverty on our campus. Administrators have refused to do so, and we now have no choice but to use pressure to force the changes that they will not willingly make. We invite every member of our community to take part in this month’s push for a living wage, to demonstrate solidarity with workers who make our university run and to convey clearly to our administration that we can no longer bear its injustice and dishonesty. It is time for the administration to understand that enough is enough.

Benjamin L. McKean ’02, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House. Amy C. Offner ’01 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. They are members of the Living Wage Campaign.