Fair Harvard?

On Dec. 19, after six months of research and debate, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP) submitted its report and recommendations regarding low-wage labor conditions at Harvard to President Lawrence H. Summers. The committee’s findings confirmed what many of us already suspected: Real wages for Harvard workers have declined in the last decade, while the number of employees earning poverty-level wages has increased. Soon, Summers will tell us what, if anything, he will do about this.

According to the report, Harvard currently employs more than a thousand workers (a figure that does not include part-time, or “casual,” employees) who earn less than the “living wage” of $10.68 determined by the Cambridge City Council last year. Most of these workers, some 95 percent, are employed as custodians, dining hall staff, security guards and parking attendants. Nearly three out of four low-wage laborers at Harvard are recent immigrants and people of color; more than a third lack a high school degree. In an attempt to help alleviate these bleak conditions of poverty, the HCECP has recommended a one-time wage increase to between $10.83 and $11.20 per hour, a reduction in co-payment charges for health benefits, and a “parity wage” provision so that subcontracted, or “outsourced,” employees are paid the same wage as directly hired, unionized workers in the same job category. These are indeed significant reforms, sure to improve the lives of Harvard’s most vulnerable workers, but they don’t go far enough.

The report does not recommend a “living wage,” per se. However, eight of the 19 committee members—including three of four students, two of three workers, and every person of color—authored “concurrences” calling for a permanent wage floor. Given the committee’s findings, as well as the sharp increase in the cost of living generally, it seems clear that if Harvard wishes to ensure that its workers do not ever live in poverty, it must establish a living wage, adjusted annually to inflation; guarantee full health benefits; ensure union representation, and the right to collective bargaining, for all workers; reverse the trend of “outsourcing” by hiring service and trade workers directly; and create an inclusive committee to oversee the successful implementation of these measures.

My own strong support for a living wage rests on four principle concerns. First, in terms of economics, Harvard can afford to do this. With an endowment of $18.3 billion, Harvard is in a unique position to provide wages, benefits and job security so that all its employees live above the poverty line. Opponents of the living wage often justify their position with appeals to the unfailing wisdom of the “free market,” arguing that Harvard should follow its dictates regarding real wage levels without question, scrutiny or moral consideration.

But who’s to say that Harvard—or any other institution, for that matter—should in every case submit to market determinations? Summers himself advocated for such flexibility at the 1988 annual meeting of the American Economic Association. Citing Keynes’ theory of “relative wages,” Summers argued that “even in settings where unemployment is high, firms do not cut wages and they sometimes even raise them. This means that when insiders raise wages at some firms, the effect spills over leading other firms to raise their wages.” It is not, then, primarily a question of market costs. For Harvard, it is rather a question of whether it will assume creative and imaginative leadership with its vast riches to eradicate the poverty in its midst.

Second, there is a political issue to consider. In recent years, the Boston and Cambridge city councils—both strongly Democratic and pro-union—have passed living wage resolutions. In doing so, they have repeatedly asked Harvard (and other local colleges and universities) to follow their example. Given Harvard’s very public intentions to expand its reach on both sides of the Charles River, and given its recent attempts to improve its “town-gown” relationship by donating millions of dollars to local education initiatives, it would be an act of political blindness to ignore the united call of democratically elected officials to implement a living wage policy. Confronted with the recent abolition of rent control and a steep rise in the cost of living, the people of greater Boston have surely suffered enough without Harvard contributing to the problem by paying many of them poverty-level wages.

Third, there is the disturbing racial and ethnic breakdown of low-wage labor at Harvard. Based on the HCECP’s findings, we now know that 73 percent of workers who do not earn a living wage are people of color—and this percentage has increased steadily over the course of the last decade. Yet during the 1990s, thanks in part to the leadership of former President Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard simultaneously affirmed its commitment to, among other things, affirmative action, faculty and student diversity and the creation of the finest Afro-American Studies department in the nation. The existence of a low-wage, impoverished labor force, comprised in large part by people of color, stands in stark contrast to the liberal ideals of diversity, inclusion and opportunity that have been espoused in recent years.

My final point is perhaps the most personal. As a graduate of the College and a current member of the teaching faculty, my Harvard roots are deep. However, as the only child of public school teachers and the grandson of factory workers, I must confess that I’ve always felt a bit out of place at Harvard, considering that the privileges and opportunities I have recently come to enjoy are unknown to the members of my family. Thus, when I see a growing, increasingly permanent low-wage labor force at Harvard, it is difficult to fully respect the institution. On the other hand, I am hopeful when my students—who are studying slavery and emancipation, immigration and industrialization—begin to make connections between the discriminations of the past and the inequalities of the present. These connections are all the more galling to them because they actually know many of Harvard’s lowest paid workers: the security guards who protect them; the dining hall workers who feed them; the custodians who clean their dorms. There is a sense of moral outrage, especially, I find, among students from modest backgrounds like my own, who understand that Harvard’s workers are like so many of our own relatives—our parents and grandparents, our siblings and cousins and loved ones—who have worked so hard for so little for so long.

I’d feel better about the lessons we are teaching our students—and the nation—if Harvard did more to value and reward all the work that helps to make it “great,” not just the intellectual work that has helped to inspire so many of us to see the injustices before us and to speak out against them until “Fair Harvard” is just that.

Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 is a lecturer in American history and literature. He is also a founding member of the Faculty Committee for a Living Wage.

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