Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Brass Tacks Two Views on the Painters' Helpers

By William R. Galeota

THE current controversy over painters' helpers has starkly outlined one of the major problems facing Harvard as a large-scale employer: How can it move blacks and members of other minority groups up from their traditional, low-level jobs, to the higher-paying jobs held almost exclusively by whites in the past?

It would be surprising if one could not find examples of discrimination in Harvard's employment and promotion practices. The prejudice pervading American society generally means that. at least at the blue-collar level, blacks get poorer jobs-partly because discrimination denies them the needed job skills and education, and partly because those who judge blacks abilities harbor their own pools of prejudice. Given this, SDS's charges that black painters' helpers have been denied proper promotion undoubtedly have some basis in fact in some cases, even if many of the specific counts which SDS hurled at Dean May cannot be proven or disproven.

The real question about the SDS argument lies in the overall pattern they claim to see in these cases: that Harvard is systematically attempting to drive down the wages of its skilled employees-painters in particular-by hiring them in categories lower than those merited by their skills. It is true that Harvard has not always been the most generous of employers during the past decades: its wage scales have lagged behind those of other Boston employers. The Wilson Committee on the University and the City admitted this in its report of a year ago, and went on to note that the University could no longer afford such a policy. In effect, the committee said that Harvard had to increase its compensation-both through wage increases and better training-or it would find itself unable to attract workers.

No doubt. this policy of increased compensation has not yet been fully put into effect, but it seems doubtful that Harvard is moving in the opposite direction: toward lower wages. Labor markets may be imperfect, but probably not so imperfect that an employer-particularly one faced with a decline in job applicants-can adept a tactic of lower pay.

RATHER than being. as SDS charges. part of such a tactic, the hiring of the painters' helpers seems to fall into a commoner category: a blundering attempt at what is nowadays known as "affirmative action"-hiring blacks and other "disadvantaged" workers. Blundering, because Harvard is now facing a situation which has happened in private industry often enough: hire blacks. put them into low-level work slots. give them little attention. look at them a year later. and you find that few, or none, have advanced.

Is this then the company or Harvard's fault? Yes, in the sense that they have failed to act on the problems blacks face in the workplace. Consider the situation at Harvard: a black painters' (or electricians' or plumbers') helper depends on a white journeyman for training. a white foreman judges his merit for promotion and, if he feels unfairly passed over, a black can complain to a white union.

This is not to say that every white worker, or foreman. or union official, is "racist." but merely that black workers here are to some extent-and more important, probably strongly feel themselves to be-in an alien. white world. The current SDS campaign has denied that the attitudes of white workers have anything to do with the situation of the painters' helpers. White workers. SDS claims have no objections to promoting the painters' helpers at one swoop. If so, it would appear to be a small miracle: that white workers-particularly the Irish Bostonians who are a large part of Harvard's work force-had completely escaped from even a trace of that racism which SDS is normally so ready, willing and able to trace in our society.

The SDS demand-eliminate the helpers' category, and promote all the painters' helpers-becomes particularly questionable when one considers what this will mean in the future to black applicants for jobs at Harvard. If the helper status-or some form of lower entrance status-does not exist, the black applicants will have to compete directly for journeyman status with white workers who, being free of the handicap of discrimination, would presumably be more skilled. This would maximize both the handicap of black workers, and the hostility from white workers created by any preference given to blacks.

THE BEST way to upgrade Harvard's black workers would be continued hiring of unskilled blacks in some sort of "helper" or "trainee" category and adoption of a formal training program to move them up in the job levels. Thus. a black could get a job at Harvard with little difficulty, then receive formal training (not the current informal training or lack of it) to move up as if on an escalator. Basically. this is the idea behind the Federal MA-5 program, for which Harvard is currently completing an application, and to which unions seem agreeable, at least in principle.

This, of course, still leaves the problem of assuring that the escalator actually works, that it is not sabotaged, whether by Harvard, unions, foremen, or workers. For this, special measures would seem to be in order, perhaps along the lines of the committee proposed by Afro. Such a committee-composed of union members, Harvard personnel officers, and black students-would oversee the program, try to iron out the problems of the black workers in it, and decide in cases of dispute over promotions. Though it might take a considerable effort to persuade Harvard and the union to accept such a committee, the effort would seem to be worthwhile, so that good intentions will not once again produce few results.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.