Justice for Janitors

The new contract is excellent, now it’s time for Occupy to move out

On Friday, after weeks of negotiations, Harvard’s janitors voted overwhelmingly to ratify the contract agreement negotiated with the University.

Their new contract includes language that will give employees who work at Harvard but are indirectly hired access to the same benefits enjoyed by directly hired employees, including child care programs and a Tuition Assistance Program. It also includes promises to move more janitors to full-time work and eliminate split shifts, as well as janitor wage raises of up to three percent a year, according to a press release by the Service Employees International Union Local 615.

We are happy that the janitors negotiated such an excellent contract. Harvard should treat its employees well, and full-time work, contiguous shifts, and equal benefits for directly-hired and contracted employees are important aspects to ensuring that Harvard’s jobs remain good jobs.

We hope that this contract sets a precedent for positive relations between the union and the University in future contracts and influences the University to apply similarly high standards for its other employees. Harvard’s labor practices continue to set a high standard in the city and state. Hopefully, this excellent contract will influence other employers, like the other universities nearby, to also guarantee their employees similarly favorable terms of employment.

SEIU Local 615 has repeatedly emphasized the connection of this contract campaign to the Occupy movement. In a press release immediately following a tentative settlement on Tuesday night, the union called the new contract “a victory for Harvard janitors and the 99 percent.” The union’s press release after the ratification vote explicitly thanked the students of Occupy Harvard for their support in the campaign. Indeed, Occupy Harvard publically expressed its support for a fair contract, and some of the students and staff involved with Occupy Harvard appeared at rallies and marches with custodians demanding a fair contract with the University.

We cannot be sure exactly how much effect Occupy Harvard’s involvement in the negotiations actually had. Although the goal of supporting workers is noble, the administration has not released any information about whether the presence of a dozen tents in Harvard Yard actually influenced contract negotiations. Despite this uncertainty, Occupy Harvard’s dedication to workers’ rights on campus is admirable. We disagree with the movement’s tactic of holding the Yard hostage, as it is a working and living place for thousands of students and a symbol of the institution’s openness to the outside world. However, the idea of fighting for higher janitorial wages is an example of proper and appropriate student activism. Harvard has a long history of student-worker action: In fact, this contract comes on the ten-year anniversary of the 2001 Living Wage campaign, which secured a living wage for all Harvard workers after a three-week occupation of Massachusetts Hall and pitching tents in Harvard Yard. Engaging with the University’s labor practices in a directed manner is a praiseworthy and useful form of activist engagement.

On the other hand, student political participation can lose legitimacy when it takes on too much. This is what the Occupy Harvard movement has done. By attempting to link local and global issues, Occupy Harvard has earned the credulity of the student body. Discussing the custodians’ contract in the context of the global Occupy movement seems misguided.

Supporting janitors is an admirable and praiseworthy cause. However, now that the janitors have won a good contract, we see little reason for Occupy Harvard to remain in Harvard Yard. It is time for the movement to cease their inappropriate and ineffective tactic of maintaining tents in the middle of Harvard’s campus. The Yard has been closed to non-ID holders for almost two weeks, and the administration has given no sign that it will open the gates before Occupy Harvard dismantles its camp. With the contract settled, it is absurd for student protestors to continue to hold the Yard hostage without concrete or achievable goals.

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