Losing a Living Wage

I remember the exact moment when I opened my inbox at an Internet café in Nairobi to see a forwarded e-mail from Marilyn Hausammann, Vice President for Human Resources at Harvard. Painstakingly slow, the page loaded with Hausammann’s announcement of the impending elimination of 275 staff positions. I had been in Kenya for only two weeks, and everything about the thickness of the air, the dirt under my fingernails, and stickiness of the keyboard reminded me of how many thousands of miles I was away from Harvard. I felt disempowered and unable to voice my opinion about the decision.

Now that I have returned, these 275 jobs are a thing of the past. I cannot go back in time, but neither can I accept Harvard’s layoffs, or the most recent hours reductions, that bring workers below a living wage. Harvard must strive to bring these members of the community back to a living wage while finding additional ways of cutting costs that do not jeopardize the jobs and lives of the people who make up this institution.

According to union representatives within Harvard, the administration’s most recent budget-cut tactic has been to implement hour reductions among staff while still expecting essentially the same amount of work to be done in less time. Although hour reductions appear to be a compromise, and perhaps a better option than layoffs, reducing hours continues to ask the lowest-paid workers at Harvard to bear an inequitable share of the financial burden. Staffers are physically strained by the work, and financially strained by the reduction in pay. Although hours reductions are preferable to layoffs because workers retain health benefits along with their continued paychecks, cutting the hours of people who already struggle to make ends meet circumvents the successes of the 2001 Living Wage Campaign. Therefore, although it is possible to see hour reductions as a win for workers, we must not accept them as a permanent solution.

Now that students have returned to campus, it is essential that we not forget the challenges facing the lowest-paid members of our community. Students must remain vigilant of the fact that the university seems to deliberately deceive us on issues involving budget cuts. It is apparent that administrators were merely waiting for students to leave campus before beginning layoffs. Although I had been warned of this, I still felt deceived by leaders of my university, who, weeks before, had shooed away concerns about layoffs by insisting that nothing had been decided and that we need not continue to pester them about layoffs because they simply had not happened. I recognize that there are, and were, many unknowns in this challenging financial crisis, but the administration’s approach demonstrated a failure of moral leadership.

How do students remain vigilant when we are often excluded from the decision-making processes surrounding Harvard’s budget? The first and most obvious way is to maintain our human and personal connections with all people who live and work at Harvard. Whether it means talking with someone who works in your dining hall or stopping to catch up with the janitor you’ve seen in the Science Center, you may learn that someone you see every day has lost an eighth of her salary and can no longer afford to pay rent. These human interactions are a key ingredient to having a respectful community, but they also contribute to the public’s understanding of how administrative decision-making affects real people.

If we know the personal stories and struggles that have emerged from this financial crisis, we may find ourselves more understanding and more dedicated to keeping the people of this university community together. Harvard workers are not a homogenous monolith with the same story, perspective, or needs, but they are individuals whom we can and should know personally and whose struggles we can and should work to alleviate. Students are not the whole answer to the challenges facing Harvard workers, but given that most of us are now back on campus, and as students we do not face the worries of being fired, we ought to be use our position to lobby for the rest of our community. Get involved with social-justice groups, write to administrators, attend rallies, and, most importantly, communicate with the people around you.

Megan A. Shutzer ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dudley House. She is a member of Student Labor Action Movement.