Last week, I attended a documentary screening on campus titled “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.” The documentary described how the DeWolf family’s wealth was founded on the slave trade. Panelists following the screening discussed research that has recently uncovered many deep connections between Harvard and slave labor. For example, Harvard Law school was established on land bequeathed from Harvard patron Isaac Royall Jr., whose family’s wealth was derived from slave plantations owned in Antigua and Surinam. Slaves also followed the children of the wealthy onto the campus and served them in the dormitories, and worked in the houses of Harvard’s presidents and faculty. Even today, many of the portraits that hang in Harvard Law School depict slave-owners.
Although slavery has been illegal for almost 150 years, the economic systems built on slave labor still exist today. In fact, one of the panelists at the event on Harvard and Slavery asserted that there are more slaves in the world today that any other time in history. The difference now is that the overt practice of slavery has been driven underground. If we view slavery in a vacuum as an antiquated practice, we miss the strong connections it has to the exploitation of labor today. Slavery is an economic system in which a class of society benefits and profits from the labor of another, while the enslaved derives no benefits. Slavery is no longer legal in the United States, but vestiges of the system that created it persist in the form of racism, sexism, and the labor struggle of today. White male privilege guarantees that a certain percentage of the population, by virtue of its color and gender, has the mark of the servant. This privilege cuts down competition and concentrates power in fewer hands. Racism and sexism are societal constructs that keep oppressed people, of all races and genders, who are exploited for their labor from uniting with each other and becoming more powerful. This struggle isn’t over yet.
Despite its massive wealth, Harvard has continued to exploit its workers throughout its history. The University has systematically tried to ensure that its workers work as hard as possible for as little compensation as possible. In the 1930s, Harvard laid off 20 janitors and replaced them all with men after the minimum wage board had ruled that the women’s pay should be increased two cents per hour. Harvard did not even guarantee its workers a living wage until the Living Wage Campaign of 2001 forced the president to negotiate with protestors. In 2009, Harvard dealt with the financial crisis by instituting mass layoffs, especially among clerical workers, which left many libraries understaffed.
This semester, the University introduced a reorganization model of shared services to the libraries, by which they propose to streamline processes and reduce staff by an unspecified percentage. Library employees who are designated as "shared services" are nolonger paid out of their local school's budget. The shared servicemodel creates service contracts, in which certain tasks that employeeshave been performing for years in circulation, technical services, andpreservation are listed, quantified and sold back to the libraries froma central administration called "Shared Services," the employees donot yet know which tasks will be assigned to them. Although a plan for library “restructuring” was announced in January, library workers still do not know how this will impact salaries and benefits for the employees who survive the staff reductions, or even how many employees the library will employ. Harvard, on the other hand, has plenty of money to handsomely compensate the employees who do the work it values most: making more money.
Unfortunately, viewing workers as commodities to be exploited can have other negative consequences for the university community. At a forum two weeks ago, workers and faculty members discussed concerns that, in addition to causing severe economic distress to loyal long term employees, the shared services model requires a standardization of procedures that will negatively impact the quality of services the libraries are able to provide. Harvard has a reputation as the greatest educational institution in the world because of the notable figures who have passed through its doors and left their mark on society. The Harvard Libraries, in their traditional form, served as an information resource that gave them access to a variety of materials that helped form a foundation for them as critical thinkers. At Harvard, the administration, the faculty, the students, and the workers are strongly dependent on each other, though these webs of interdependence are not always obvious. Continued exploitation of workers for financial gain is not only a step backward in the moral evolution of society, but it increases the likelihood that in the future Harvard’s reputation will be founded more on massive wealth than on excellence in education.
Desiree Goodwin is a Library Assistant in the Graduate School of Design Library.