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The Corporation: Wage Cutter, Strike Breaker


By Rhesa LEE Penn iii

HARVARD OFFERS Printers Ten Per Cent Pay Cut; Refuses Negotiations." The Administration will never state its dogged resistance to the printers' demands for a living wage in such frank terms. Bok's refusal to raise employees' wages is a continuation of a well-established, little-publicized Harvard anti-union tradition.

In 1912, the workers in the textile mills of Lawrence struck in protest against a cut in hourly pay imposed by the wool trust. They had ample reason to rebel. Child labor was usual, disease was rampant, and both wages and working conditions were deteriorating. Soon after the strike began, Massachusetts sent in militia to harass the workers and to break the Industrial Workers of the World strike. Large numbers of these troops were Harvard students whom President Lowell released from finals in order to protect the property of his fellow textile magnates. As an aristocratic Boston observer noted at the time. "They rather enjoyed going down there and having their fling at those people." Despite mass arrests and beatings by government and company agents, the strikers won their demands for a wage increase within two months.

The next test of Harvard's labor relations policy came in the fall of 1929, when Harvard fired 20 women janitors. The reason for the firing was that the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Commission demanded that Harvard pay these workers the statutory minimum wage of 37.5 cents per hour. Harvard claimed that its 35-cent wages actually did meet the legal minimum. The reason was that the women were given an unpaid 20-minute rest period during their 5-hour day, and this rest was worth the extra 2.5 cents per hour to the workers. If the janitors found their pay inadequate, they could take a second job.

The University claimed that it did not need to employ 20 women, because seven men could do the same work--without a minimum wage. The University saved $2000 per year by firing the 20 janitors without notice or severance pay, as well as avoiding paying the $600 per year that the legally-required raise would have cost. A committee of alumni concerned about the firings had good reason to damn the administration's acts as "Harsh, stingy, socially insensitive, and considerably short of the highest ethical standards of the time."

Harvard's treatment of the printers shows that its attitudes toward its workers have hardly changed since the Hoover era. Last fall, Harvard offered the printers a 5.9 per cent wage increase for two years--which, at recent rates of inflation, represents a drop of 10 per cent in the purchasing power of the printers' and binders' wages. Most printers earn between $7500 and $9000 before taxes--only 3 out of 31 workers make salaries in the $13,000 range. These are not extravagant wages; the Department of Labor considered that an income of $9500 per year was necessary for urban working families of four to have a "modest but comfortable" standard of living in 1970. It is obscene that Harvard bureaucrats earning over $25,000 per year should ask these 31 people to take a wage cut. The union demands for an across-the-board $10-per-week pay raise in addition to the Harvard offer of 5.9 per cent would allow the printers to catch up with inflation to some degree, and to narrow the $45-per-week gap between the pay of the Harvard printers and that of comparable unionized workers in commercial Boston printing shops.

In 1967, the printers struck the University for the first time to gain the right to be represented by the Graphic Arts International Union (GAIU). Since then, despite union representation, the gap between Harvard wages and those of other union shops has steadily widened. The reason is that Harvard has never given the printers compensation for cost-of-living increase. As a result, real wages have fallen since 1967.

HARVARD'S JUSTIFICATIONS for the wage differential are as slick as those it invoked in 1929 to justify firing the janitors. Harvard claims that its employees enjoy unusual job security despite the fact that six printers on the night shift were permanently laid off several years ago due to automation. Harvard claims that its new pension plan, by ending the traditional $3.50 worker contribution to the fund, means that the workers are actually getting a 7-per-cent wage increase in each of the next two years. The strikers have a different viewpoint. The plan under which Harvard and the employees gave matching payments into a fund was taken away from the workers without their consent. The printers will receive neither the funds that Harvard paid into that plan in their name nor the interest on the funds which they deposited with the University. A printer's only reward for giving the University more money to extend its investments is a dollar-for-dollar repayment upon retirement of his contribution with the value of those dollars eroded by inflation. Furthermore, Harvard offers fewer holidays and lower night shift pay than other printers' shops locally. As Jim Havlan, shop steward for GAIU local 16 says, "You're supposed to say: "I work for Harvard; I don't need to get paid. Just let me put a big 'H' on my back."

The strikers can't afford to be charitable about wages for the good of Harvard. The University fears that if the printers win, other unions, such as the police and the janitors, which accepted contracts worse than that offered to the printers, will demand that their wages rise to keep up with inflation. Harvard could afford to meet the demands of its workers for a living wage, without raising tuition--if it chose to alter its spending and investment priorities.

Harvard has not altered its policies to bring itself into line with "the highest ethical standards of the time" because it is more than just a university. Harvard is one of America's 500 largest corporations, with an endowment worth $1.4 billion. The mangers of this endowment are corporate executives and bankers who manage the endowment with an eye to maximum return.

The pursuit of maximum return means that, from a total endowment income of $63 million in 1972, the University directly reinvested $5.3 billion in income, while another $10.7 billion in income, including capital gains, was indirectly reinvested. This policy assures that Harvard's profits and financial clout within such companies as Gulf, Standard Oil of New Jersey, ITT, and Raytheon can rise. But the pursuit of profits and portfolios by Harvard-affiliated bankers has meant that the workers face unnecessarily low wages, while undergraduate and graduate students face cutbacks in financial aid which threaten to make Harvard a school for the rich only.

Harvard can abandon its selfish financial policy. However, years of resistance by both workers and students will be necessary before the University can be turned around. This struggle can begin by a student commitment to aid the printers. Our interests are one; we should show our unity in the face of Harvard by joining the GAIU picket lines.

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