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Exploitation of the Workers

By Robert M. Krim

FOR MANY students at Harvard, the campaign of SDS and Afro to promote the painters' helpers to journeymen painters is a complicated and boring issue which might best be left to Harvard and the unions to resolve. It does not seem as important as the war or Harvard's expansion into Cambridge. The University has said that the category of "painters helper" was initiated 14 months ago in order to employ more blacks and train them "with the clear objective of promotion to journeyman after a sufficient period of on-the-job training."

Those students who full themselves into acceptance of the University's explanation are ignoring the lessons of last spring. The University does not always tell the whole story and does not change its position on important matters-like money-until it is pressured. Specifically. the issue is whether Harvard University is going to pay an equal and fair wage to black and white painters for doing the same job. On a more general level it is a question of subtle but insidious racism and a nineteenth-century wage policy. Harvard should not be allowed to get away with it in 1969. if it ever should have.

The University Personnel Office says that it hired blacks in order to train them as painters, on the assumption that when they became proficient they would be raised to journeymen. The facts, according to the painters and their union officials. present a quite different story. All of the black painters' helpers now working at Harvard were required to give references attesting to their previous painting experience. Many of the white helpers are experienced as well. When they came to Harvard for an interview they were told either that they weren't qualified, or. that there were no openings for painters and, that if they'd work as helpers for a while, they'd be promoted when openings developed.

No helpers have been promoted to journeymen painters, despite the fact that some have had as much as ten years' experience. No training has been given any of the helpers, including the one or two whites with no previous experience. They were not sent to union night school as the union proposed, nor were crew chiefs or journeymen painters told anything about training them. When a crew chief asked the paint-shop foreman. "What's a helper supposed to do?" the foreman replied. "Are you kidding? The same thing as any other painter!" It is not the union or the white journeymen painters who don't want these experienced helpers promoted. The union has been pressing for several months in negotiations to train those unskilled helpers at union night school. The union policy is that those who are qualified as journeymen should hold that title and be paid accordingly.

And so Harvard pays the helpers $2.86 an hour, while the journeymen who do the same work receive $3.72. Not that Harvard pays the full painters what it should. Journeymen painters in the Boston area working under a union contract receive $5.90 an hour ($6.90 come January). Larry Hodston, the shop steward of the Harvard painters, believes that this is the reason that Harvard originally started the "helper-3rd class" category which was not provided in the union contract signed two years ago. "Harvard couldn't even get a nibble from journeymen painters, even after an advertisement in a Boston newspaper." said Hodston recently. "Wages were the reason. They pay such low wages."

The University says that the helpers have a regular grievance procedure whereby they can protest if they feel that they have enough experience to be journeymen. As one helper said recently, "a white painter filed two grievances, and ever since he's been given shit work and gets needled constantly." A white painter who has painted for Harvard for more than fifteen years said, "If you file a grievance, it'll hurt you later. Everyone knows this." Painters' helpers who have asked for promotion because of their experience have been told they have a "bad attitude" toward their work and have been hassled.

SINCE THE painters have become an issue, the University-long the bastion of free thought and inquiry-has gone to great lengths to prevent dissent. Crew chiefs have been told to call the foreman (who is supposed to call in higher authority, including the police if necessary) if radical students speak to painters while on the job. Robert Murphy, an assistant foreman, ordered CRIMSON reporter Reay Brown to leave a building where painters were working. It was a Harvard dorm, where a student is normally permitted. It is a campaign to intimidate the workers. (As union officials have admitted privately.)

How is this helpers' program racist? Racism is not merely an attitude of thinking black people are inferior or disliking them because of their skin color. It is a matter of the ways in which black people are paid less and forced to live in poor housing. The reason that Harvard can get experienced black painters at a lower wage (besides the fact that helpers are lied to about promotions) is that these men can't find jobs elsewhere because of discrimination. To justify profiting from skilled black painters hired for the low helpers' wage. Harvard claims that it can't find "qualified" black workers. This is false. It builds the idea-a racist idea-that black people are inferior, that black people are less qualified.

If Harvard wants to train painters, then it should set up a program which does that-one that doesn't require references from previous jobs. It should also pay the trainees the same as the other painters because they will be doing the same work. The University should negotiate these things with the union now, when a new contract is being drawn up. The present helpers should be promoted and paid a wage equal to the journeymen's. It is time the University stopped hiring blacks for less, under false pretenses, so that it can save money. Harvard employed 60 journeymen painters in 1952 and 27 to do the job today-this is where the 12 helpers come in.

SDS was holding Dean May last week because of Harvard's racism, intimidation, and cheap labor policies. Maybe a few other liberals and radicals should take notice.

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