'Occupy' Bolsters Workers’ Cause in Midst of Contract Negotiations
Harvard’s labor relations have been a centerpiece of the Occupy Harvard campaign since the protest kicked off last week, and union heads and employees have welcomed the movement’s support as the clock ticks down on the University’s custodial contract.
“The students are always supporting us, but never like now,” Harvard Business School custodian Wanda Rosario said. “It’s excellent. It’s support that we need.”
In the past week, Occupy Harvard students have touted signs advocating for better wages and protesting disparities between the lowest and highest paid Harvard employees.
This support comes at a crucial moment in University labor relations as custodial workers’ contract expires at 12 a.m. Wednesday morning. After more than a month of contract negotiations, custodians have threatened to strike after their final negotiation session on Tuesday if the University does not satisfactorily meet their demands.
But beyond supporting workers’ rights on campus, workers and union leaders say the movement represents a broader directive from the students for Harvard to become a more socially responsible organization.
Wayne M. Langley—director of higher education for SEIU Local 615, the union that represents Harvard custodians—said that the University has lost sight of its mission to serve the public, a mission that the Occupy Harvard movement is throwing back into the spotlight.
“They’re representing the social conscience of the University which has kind of withered away a bit,” Langley said. “Their issues are broader than our contract—they’re concerned about the overall direction and commitment of the public mission and the social contract that the University has with the general public.”
Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE! Local 26, the union that represents Harvard dining hall workers, said that good labor relations are important, but added that Harvard should invest in companies that engage in responsible labor practices.
“We think Harvard has a lot of money to spend investing, and we want the companies they’re investing in to practice sustainable labor practices as well,” Lang said.
He singled out Harvard’s investment in hotel management company HEI as particularly troubling, saying the company has been cited for several labor complaints in the past and has a “poor track record” with regard to labor practices.
Ultimately, Lang said he sees this as an “opportunity for growth” for Harvard.
“I think what the Harvard students are doing is a statement, and I hope the University listens and does the right thing,” he said.
Student organizers said that University labor issues are central concerns of the Occupy Harvard campaign.
“We focused on bringing Occupy to campus in order to address some of the issues specific to Harvard,” said William P. Whitham ’14, a member of the Student Labor Action Movement and an Occupy Harvard student organizer. “I see the custodians fight and the sustainable and responsible investing fight as a very important part of what Occupy is fighting for if not all of it.”
Whitham said that Harvard’s Occupy movement was a natural extension of the work of many progressive initiatives on campus, including SLAM’s campaign for fair working conditions.
“This is actually Harvard students who know about these labor campaigns and who know about Harvard,” Whitham said. “No one came from Occupy to organize us—we organized ourselves in order to address these issues on campus.”
—Jose DelReal contributed reporting to this story
—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at email@example.com