A Matter of Principles

PUBLIC INTEREST

To be sure, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP) has broken much new ground. It recommended a policy of wage parity between direct and outsourced employees, as well as a significant one-time increase in wages. It made an unambiguous commitment to collective bargaining and criticized Harvard for seeking cheaper labor through outsourcing. And it brought attention to reports of an occasionally hostile or abusive environment for Harvard workers that frustrates the University’s stated policies and that must be addressed quickly.

But in addition to recommendations, the committee was supposed to provide reasoning. The campus looked to the HCECP not only for the resolution of an extended political conflict, but also for an explanation of how Harvard should act as a university and an employer. The report speaks often and with much fervor about Harvard’s “obligation to be a good employer,” and Harvard is of course obliged to be morally responsible in all things. But anyone consulting the report to learn what being a good employer might entail (and why) will find painfully little guidance in its pages.

Part of the committee’s answer to these questions of right and wrong can be found in its first principle of employment policies. The report states that Harvard “has an obligation to be a good employer to fulfill its teaching and research missions.” This is an obligation of purely instrumental value; a hypothetical imperative, not a categorical one. To the committee, a good employer provides the wages and benefits “necessary to attract, retain, and motivate employees.” The HCECP identifies only one reason why Harvard must contribute to a “minimally decent standard of living” for workers’ families, namely that such a contribution is required in order to attain the “personnel-related outcomes” of retaining and motivating employees. In other words, the University is a good employer when it makes employees productive and better fulfills its own mission, a definition that places no obligation on Harvard except to do what pays.

The committee may be right: Higher wages might serve Harvard well by increasing efficiency and decreasing turnover. Had the report concentrated its efforts on such a proposal, presenting compelling evidence and argument to demonstrate the benefits of an “efficiency wage,” then Harvard’s refusal to pay higher wages would truly have been exposed as inexcusable—hurtful to the University as well as to its workers.

But the report contained no such evidence. And by basing its recommendations on an empirical claim—that higher wages will improve the University’s teaching and research efforts—the committee risks being flat-out wrong. Harvard certainly pays attractive wages to professors, but it might decide that attractive wages for custodians are less mission-critical, and the HCECP makes no effort to convince the administration of the contrary.

In fact, the University could easily use the committee’s criteria to justify the discrepancy in pay between workers in House dining halls and those in retail cafeterias, even though the distinction flies directly in the face of parity. And if one recognizes that different categories of employees can be more or less vital to Harvard’s mission and can deserve differing levels of pay, then the committee’s recommendation to raise wages across the board to at least $10.83—which happens to be the entry-level figure for clerical and technical workers—loses all force.

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect much from a report that was intended to be written by committee. After all, this is a document that refuses to “tell the parties how they should negotiate in collective bargaining” and in the same breath “urges and expects” an hourly wage above $10.83.

Yet the tensions in this report go remarkably deep. The HCECP bases its central recommendation, the call for parity, on the grounds that Harvard “should not use outsourcing to undermine its obligations to collectively bargain in good faith with its unionized employees.” However, it would seem that parity has nothing at all to do with bargaining in good faith; Harvard might show the utmost honesty in all union negotiations and still seek to outsource work at lower cost.

And though the committee portrays parity as a natural outgrowth of collective bargaining, one can easily imagine cases where two principles might conflict. A unionized contractor might take a large number of different jobs from different employers, and the union might reasonably have agreed to lower wages in order to ensure a steady supply of work—those tradeoffs are the essence of collective bargaining. But if union negotiation is the only proper way to set wages, then why shouldn’t Harvard be able to purchase the contractor’s services in good conscience regardless of whether it pays parity wages? In fact, that’s the exact decision Harvard made several years ago when it outsourced to unionized custodians.

No one disputes that outsourced workers, because they must compete for Harvard’s contracts, have less bargaining power than direct employees. If parity were implemented, in-house unions would be protected by Harvard’s deep pocket, almost entirely insulated from external market pressures. And presumably there’s an argument to be made that the proper negotiating balance between capital and labor is one that forbids price competition through outsourcing. Yet the HCECP never makes that argument, nor does it claim that low wages are bad in themselves—instead, it relies only on vague references to the University’s “good faith.”

It’s too early to tell whether the committee’s suggested reforms will succeed in bettering the lot of workers, or whether they will content the majority of concerned students. But in this case, the practical problems posed by the report pale next to the theoretical ones.

Though it was often cast in terms of moral responsibility versus corporate greed, the wage debate was never over whether Harvard should be a moral employer. Of course Harvard ought to do what it ought to do; that’s a tautology, and no great moral truth. Rather, the debate was over which business practices are morally acceptable, and no one who might have disagreed with the HCECP’s conclusions will be convinced by their halfhearted justification. The committee was charged to debate “the principles and policies that should guide the University’s employment practices,” and unfortunately for Harvard, it failed in that charge.

Stephen E. Sachs ’02 is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

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