Workers Protest Year of Cuts, Layoffs

A year of mounting discontent among Harvard workers and labor activists came to a head on Friday, as hundreds of protesters gathered beside the Holyoke Center to speak out against layoffs and other recent cost-cutting measures by the University.

The rally, timed to coincide with Saturday’s International Workers’ Day, was the largest of four major labor-related demonstrations staged at Harvard since last September, and by far the most widely attended.

The high turnout was dominated by students, many of them members of the Harvard Social Forum Labor Caucus, one of the event’s main organizers. Also present were representatives from the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), the group which took over Mass. Hall—the site of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ office—in 2001 as part of the living wage campaign.

The crowd of approximately 150 workers and students began the proceedings with a series of speeches on justice in labor relations, before marching on to Mass. Hall with soda can noisemakers andbanners in hand.

The protest wound through Harvard Yard, past a tour group and past the John Harvard statue, stopping outside of Mass. Hall.

Campus police stood guard as a few more speeches were delivered—including one by Lecturer on the Study of Religion Brian C.W. Palmer ’86, the lone member of the faculty to speak at the event.

Palmer dismissed the University’s ongoing budget crunch as a contrived attempt to pander to future donors.

“The Corporation needs to manufacture an aura of crisis, budget cuts and belt tightening to please the alumni,” he said, “to be able to tell them ‘we are running out of money and you, as business people, will appreciate the way we’ve been cutting the fat out of our work force.’”

The student-heavy crowd, which also included members of five different campus unions, responded with applause and shouts of “Lay off Larry!” before joining hands and surrounding Mass. Hall in a human chain.

It is unclear whether Summers was in the building when protesters yelled defiant chants at his windows, but according to University spokesperson Joe Wrinn, he was likely given advanced briefing on the event.

Merry Touborg, a spokesperson for Harvard’s Office of Human Resources, said that central administration approves of Friday’s student activism, but is frustrated that the University’s improvements often go unnoticed.

“It is a strange conflict for people who feel very dedicated to the same kinds of things that the students are talking about to hear criticism that leaves out a great deal of what the University does,” she said.

Touborg added that many of the University’s cost-cutting measures are “systemic,” and that many of the protesters’ demands are unfeasible in light of the faltering national economy.

Wrinn, meanwhile, said that upcoming projects in Allston and in the science department necessitated the University’s cost-cutting moves.

Labor protesters have traditionally shrugged off such defenses, however, and as the number of layoffs at Harvard continues to grow, workers seem to have only gotten angrier.

SPEAKING UP

The rallies in front of Holyoke and then Mass. Hall lasted a combined two hours, beginning shortly after 4 p.m. when emcees Michael Gould ’07 and Vanessa A. Pope ’07 introduced Edward Chiles of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees’ Local 26—the union which represents dining hall workers at Harvard.

“Just like other corporations in this country, they’ve hired little Nazis to harass our workers and intimidate them,” Chiles said, setting the tone for the rest of the protest. “We won’t put up with these agents of President Summers. We will not be intimidated by any little Nazis.”

Chiles said that the University had unfairly taken away benefits from disabled workers, and discriminated against “mostly immigrants, black and Latin workers.”

Wrinn said these accusations were unfounded.

Event organizers distributed flyers to the crowd as Chiles spoke, summarizing their grievances in 11 points, which were reiterated throughout the afternoon.

“While Harvard keeps getting richer...its workers continue to be denied basic rights like full-time jobs, job security, and union representation,” the flyer said. “Over the past year, Harvard workers have been subject to numerous attacks by the Harvard administration.”

The demands which followed ranged from specific to general, as some called for a halt to layoffs and outsourcing, while others simply urged readers to “support the struggles of working people worldwide” in honor of International Workers’ Day. The flyer also demanded an increased dedication to health care benefits and financial aid for working-class students.

“I’m excited to see that we’re talking about everything from labor market structure to housing and health care and discrimination,” said Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05. “If enough students and workers combine their power, they can do anything.”

Mahan pointed to the living wage sit-in as an example of successful activism, saying that it “definitely showed that students do have power when they speak with one voice and organize.”

By 4:45 p.m., Spoken Word Society member Okechukwu W. Iweala ’06 had performed a sprawling spoken word piece, and a pair of sibling Harvard graduates now working as independent journalists for Democracy Now! encouraged the onlooking students to persist in their activist efforts.

“We’ve won before, you’ll win again,” said David Goodman, who helped found the dining hall workers union during his time at Harvard. “This is an important cause. You shouldn’t be getting a world-class education while people are getting third-world wages.”

Other speakers included a pair of unionized janitors, a representative from the Radcliffe Union of Students and members of the Socialist Alternative—a national organization which shares many of its Cambridge members with Harvard’s No Layoffs Campaign, an activist group that has been protesting the University’s job cuts since last summer.

The Socialist Alternative was just one of several socialist groups represented at Friday’s rally, which also drew members of the Workers’ Vanguard newspaper and the Revolutionary Worker magazine. Several people in the crowd said that the socialist presence might scare off some potentially interested moderates, but most of them maintained that the rally’s strongest point was its unification of many different groups behind a single cause.

“The most important thing achieved is a sense of union solidarity,” said Aaron Bartley, an organizer in Local 615 of the Service Employees International Union. “The University has been aware of each of the issues expressed today for over a year. What’s new is that they’ve now been expressed in a unified voice.”

Not everybody at the rally was in agreement, however.

During a speech on the value of negotiations and persistence by Danny Meagher, president of the Harvard University Security, Parking and Museum Guards Union, a student member of the Workers’ Vanguard shouted out that the group had no business taking part in the labor rally.

“Security is no friend of the workers’ union,” he said. “We think it’s really outrageous that these agents of the capitalist state are being treated as fellow workers. Their inclusion is a knife into the heart of organized labor.”

Meagher responded by saying that although security are sometimes charged with breaking up strikes and putting down demonstrations, they “have the same right to decent living and dignity as anyone else.”

As Meagher spoke, a few of the police officers guarding Mass. Hall nodded in agreement.

—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at neyfakh@fas.harvard.edu.