Summers' Wage Choice
As individuals who served as members of the HCECP, we firmly believe that Summers can and should recognize the significance of the opportunity before him. We believe the only way to guarantee that poverty wages do not become an issue in the near future is to regard the committee’s recommendations critically, in the spirit befitting an academic institution such as Harvard. First, Summers should honor the positive step forward that our recommendations represent by instituting a policy of wage parity between direct and outsourced employees and raising starting wages above $11.30 per hour until contracts are renegotiated. In our view of our committee’s data, a wage of $12 per hour is a minimal benchmark.
We hope this fact is reflected in the University’s final decision. Equally importantly, Summers should take the initiative to go beyond these recommendations to absolutely guarantee that workers’ needs do not go unmet in the future through wage erosion and stagnation. The necessity of such protection from wage erosion is clear. It is at the heart of the “living wage” idea that great many who turned Harvard Yard into a “tent city” last spring have been educating the University about for several years now.
We well understand the tremendous opportunity Summers has before him to buttress a parity wage policy with a clear mechanism for annual adjustment of the wage standards that our committee recommended. This understanding derives from our own intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of our committee’s final report. Let us be clear: no one should doubt that the immediate adoption and transparent implementation of the HCECP’s recommendations would result in significant improvements in the lives of workers at Harvard. Besides wages, the gains include making benefits affordable and accessible and having an implementation process with broad-based participation of workers, students and faculty.
However, five of seven of the students and workers on the committee wrote in our concurrence to the report, we strongly believe these recommendations did not go far enough because they failed to acknowledge fully the impetus behind the living wage campaign, which was that some wages and working conditions are simply unacceptable.
For the many workers still earning poverty wages, a fuller commitment to a living wage as a permanent safeguard is not, of course, an academic issue. Our concern is that a parity wage might create new jobs with lower real wages in the future, or that the University might bargain without good faith and exact wage concessions from workers. As our findings of fact amply suggest, these scenarios have been all too possible in the past. And the example of Harvard’s security guards—who have almost all been outsourced—shows the fragility of the “parity only” solution. With sufficient union-busting, there is no internal benchmark for wages.
To its credit, the committee suggested a partial remedy to prevent wage stagnation. It suggested that wages rise with cost of living if there is a bargaining impasse after a union contract expires. However, the value of this recommendation as a policy is limited. The management can still easily coerce workers to sign away basic standards, creating new lower-wage jobs.
Harvard does not negotiate over child labor through collective bargaining, and poverty-level wages should be similarly prohibited. It is incumbent upon a moral institution to set such standards, and the principles identified in the committee’s report acknowledge as much. However, the high principles must be locked in by strong institutions. In the spirit of Summers’ own admirable comments expressing concern for the welfare of Harvard’s service workers (made just before the release of our report), we urge him to set a precedent for Harvard as an employer, befitting its reputation as an educator, by mandating a living wage standard and accepting the existing recommendations for a parity wage policy.
It is perhaps no mere coincidence that as the rest of the country prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Summers will decide whether or not to take the necessary steps to ensure that Harvard’s low-wage service workers, overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants, will never be left to work for poverty wages in the future. Just days before Harvard’s janitors officially launch contract negotiations, Summers will have the opportunity to do King’s memory proud. A real commitment to the dignity of the many faces of color who allow Harvard to function will, no doubt, serve as a most welcome step.
Faisal I. Chaudhry is a Harvard Law School student and a member of PSLM. Edward Childs is chief shop steward for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 26 and a cook in the Adams House dining hall. Both were members of the HCECP.