The demonstrators in Massachusetts Hall deserve our continued support. Although President Neil L. Rudenstine took a step in the right direction by announcing willingness to reopen the living wage issue by assembling a new committee, the demonstrators are justified in requesting specifics regarding the committee’s composition, mandate, powers and timetable. Harvard’s administration is far more powerful than the weary demonstrators and can force them out or wait them out without granting their requests, but it ought not to. The demonstrators have right on their side, in two ways. First, there is a powerful moral argument in favor of Harvard’s adopting a living wage policy. And second, even if Harvard’s leaders disagree with this argument or with the demonstrators’ tactics, they owe us all a reply to the argument and not merely criticism of the tactics to which the demonstrators resorted after years of being denied that reply. Harvard’s leaders should at least provide credible evidence of readiness to reply and willingness to change their policies if they cannot justify them.
The demonstrators assert that all Harvard workers’ wages should be high enough to enable full-time workers to afford to live within reasonable commuting distance from the workplace at a decent standard of living, so that they need not work a second or even third job just to pay for food, shelter and clothing; and that all Harvard workers should get health insurance and other regular benefits. They also assert that Harvard’s failure to meet these standards for wages and benefits is unjustifiable.
There are moral reasons why Harvard should meet these standards. In setting its employment policies and budget priorities, and in bargaining collectively, Harvard should give due weight to the basic needs and interests of its workers: their lives are greatly affected by its decisions, and morality requires that all agents consider the effects of their actions on others and avoid unnecessarily causing harm or hardship to anyone.
Is Harvard causing harm or hardship, or exploiting some of its workers? Arguably it is, even though it does not force anyone to take its jobs; for if the wages are not enough to support a decent standard of living, the worker is faced with the choice of either trying to find a better-paying job elsewhere in the area, which will not be possible if Harvard is indeed paying no less than other employers, or working a second or third job if they are able. For many it is a choice between the hardships of poverty and those of overworking. This is the case whether the workers are directly hired or subcontracted. And hiring workers through subcontractors disadvantages Harvard’s workers in various ways: directly hired workers get laid off or offered a job with the subcontractor, and the subcontracted workers’ wages, benefits or job security are worse than what directly hired workers used to have. Is Harvard unnecessarily harming or exploiting some of its workers? Arguably it is. This claim is especially easy to support because Harvard is so wealthy that it can implement a living wage without detriment to any of its interests or goals. If it were less wealthy, it would still require a powerful excuse for not paying a living wage. Since it cannot claim ignorance, it appears to have no excuse.
So it appears that the demonstrators have a strong moral argument. It is easy to see the reasons that support it. And it is not easy to see what reasons might justify Harvard’s refusal to adopt a living wage policy. Possibly there are justifying reasons. If so, Harvard’s leaders should articulate them.
Rudenstine does not articulate such reasons in his public statement of April 23. In fact he simply reports that the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies “discussed and explicitly decided not to endorse the concept of a mandatory wage floor imposed without regard to collective bargaining.” He also reports that he reviewed the committee’s report, consulted others and “approved the committee’s recommendations.” However, he does not explain his reasons for approving it, beyond saying that he believed, and believes, that the committee’s recommended approach “is both progressive and sound” (for reasons he does not state), and that it “respects the collective bargaining process as the established means to set wages for employees represented by unions.”
Contrary to what Rudenstine here implies, if Harvard were to adopt a living wage policy it would not be showing any disrespect for the collective bargaining process. Moreover, unions engaged in collective bargaining with Harvard have tried to win a living wage for their workers, and have failed due to Harvard’s resistance. Harvard is the more powerful partner. In recent years Harvard has been weakening the unions representing full-time, directly hired employees by subcontracting. Joe Wrinn’s April 27 statement addresses but does not contradict this claim. And although some subcontracted workers have union representation, many of them do not. In addition, fragmented representation makes it more difficult for workers to take collective action or exercise bargaining power.
The Ad Hoc Committee found that “Harvard pays its employees fairly as compared with other local employers.” This is good, but why is it good enough, if other local employers pay less than a living wage? The committee emphasized the importance of benefits, and rightly so: without them, even $10.25 per hour is insufficient. But benefits do not enable one to pay for food or rent.
What the demonstrators are calling for is not only a more satisfactory response to their arguments, but also a more mutually respectful community. They hold that the basic needs of all should be recognized and that policymakers should listen and respond in good faith to well-considered moral objections to their policies—and be open to persuasion by good reasons even if they are offered by people less powerful than themselves. They deserve our support.
Alyssa R. Bernstein is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government.