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PSLM's Public Rallies Force University to Take Notice

By Robert K. Silverman, Crimson Staff Writer

Few groups on campus are as visible as the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM).

Over the past year, PSLM has organized large rallies, staged a walkout during Commencement, hoisted a flag emblazoned with "$10"--the demanded hourly "living wage"--over University Hall and led an "anti-sweatshop tour" of the Square.

Responsible for the living wage and anti-sweatshop campaigns, PSLM has transformed a campus once known for its apathy into one written up in Time magazine for its activism, where rallies and marches have become a standard sight in the Yard and at Holyoke Center.

"A year ago, 'living wage' was not a term that many people knew," PSLM member Amy C. Offner '01 says. "Many people didn't think about the University as an employer or a corporation, and now it's common."

Even Harvard's administration, notorious for glacially slow decision-making, has taken notice, most notably giving ground to the group's demands on sweatshops.

"I think students have been unusually effective in making clear what the issues are," says Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine.

But the reasons behind the lobbying successes of this loosely organized group of pro-labor activists may not be immediately apparent.

PSLM attributes its successes to a program of humiliating Harvard through public demonstrations that draw campus audiences and national media attention.

"We operate on the assumption that the University is not going to change its policies until they become too embarrassing to sustain," Offner says. But this tactic has its limits. The anti-sweatshop campaign won easier victories because it did not run counter to any set University rule and it required little effort on Harvard's part to comply.

The living wage campaign has encountered stiffer administrative resistance despite a more ambitious program of public rallies. The potentially high cost of concessions--in terms of money and bargaining power--in this case makes the administration more resistant to change.

No Sweat

PSLM has achieved its greatest success in the anti-sweatshop campaign.

The campaign began in the spring of 1998, when PSLM invited Dominican workers to speak to students about factory conditions.

The group then began holding rallies on the steps of Widener Library, calling for Harvard to adopt a policy of full disclosure, requiring its licensees to release the names and locations of its factories.

At March's "Rally for Justice," as 350 students gathered in front of University Hall during a Faculty meeting, PSLM member Elizabeth C. Vladeck '99 told the crowd through a megaphone that the University had agreed to full disclosure.

"This [issue]arose with the students, not with the administration," says University attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., Harvard's point person on the issue of sweatshop policy.

Last month both Champion and Gear for Sports, the two largest suppliers of Harvard merchandise, agreed to disclose the locations of their factories.

Despite this victory, PSLM members say much work remains to be done.

"We're very pleased and satisfied that disclosure has become the thing to do for companies, but that's just the first step in making these companies more transparent," says PSLM member Erik A. Beach '02, who is also a Crimson editor.

The campaign's current focus is to pressure the University to monitor the factories effectively.

Harvard currently belongs to the government-sponsored Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Independent University Initiative, which Harvard started with four other universities.

PSLM members charge that both are too closely aligned with corporate interests to be effective.

The campaign's goal is for the University to withdraw from the FLA and join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization developed over the summer by students.

While Ryan and PSLM members clash over Harvard's involvement with the FLA, both sides agree that they have made significant progress. PSLM has moved beyond the rallying stage and meets with Ryan on a regular basis to negotiate for change.

Ryan says PSLM has been successful because University policy does not conflict with the campaign's core demands regarding sweatshop labor.

In addition, a change in Harvard policy primarily affects licensed manufactures, not the University itself. "We and the students want the same thing," Ryan says, "for Harvard to do everything in its power to improve conditions in factories in which University-licensed apparel is made."

Waging a Campaign

PSLM's living wage campaign has encountered significantly more resistance from the administration.

Last spring, the administration created an ad-hoc Faculty committee to study the labor situation at Harvard but has yet to take any other action.

"Sweatshops has gotten a whole lot more victories. Living wage doesn't have that much to show for it," said PSLM member William W. Erickson '00-'01.

PSLM calls this committee, scheduled to release a report in the spring, a stalling tactic. In order to break the deadlock, it has turned to more aggressive public demonstrations than those necessary in the anti-sweatshop campaign.

"In general I think the motivating force for the University is negative publicity, so they pay attention to us relative to the amount of noise that we make," says Benjamin L. McKean '02.

The group has held about 10 public rallies since the living wage campaign began about a year ago.

So far this semester, PSLM members have stacked trash bags in front of the John Harvard statue, smacked a "Harvard" shark piata and stormed the Holyoke Center office of Kim A. Roberts, Harvard's director of labor and human relations.

"You need massive public rallies and demonstrations not just because they look pretty or it's fun to chant, but because that's how you really exercise power and bring large numbers of people [into the campaign]," says second-year law student Aaron D. Bartley, the founder of the living wage campaign.

Most rallies attract about 150 students and include noted speakers such as Cambridge Mayor Francis H. Duehay '55 and Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West '74, both of whom have spoken this year.

An Atmosphere for Action

University officials say the mass demonstrations organized by PSLM are hard to ignore.

In the latest round of contract negotiations, the University's janitors, members of Local 254 of the Service Employees International Union, won significant wage increases, up to $1.15 per hour by 2002, ending a period of wage stagnation.

In the weeks leading up to the contract signing, the living wage campaign held a series of actions in support of Local 254.

At one rally, about 30 demonstrators stormed the seventh-floor Holyoke Center office of Roberts, the lead negotiator for the University. They were turned away at the door by Harvard University Police Department officers but continued marching and chanting in the corridor for about 10 minutes.

Roberts says student activism did not play a role in the actual negotiations.

"In terms of the issues raised in those negotiations, the answer would have to be no," she wrote in an e-mail.

But other administrators say student activism has affected the general atmosphere in which negotiations take place.

"To pull out a single strand is a very difficult thing to do. It's a piece of the environment in which the negotiations are carried out," says Merry Touborg, director of communications for the office of human resources.

Associate Vice President for Administration Polly Price says student activism "probably" affected the contract negotiations with Local 254.

"We still weigh the same factors. To the extent that there is student activism [it] is one of the factors that we weight," she says.

Touborg lists debates over benefits, changing marketing rates, the need to control costs, worker equity and the desirability of Harvard as a workplace as factors that may affect negotiations.

"The living wage campaign [has] a pretty simplistic way of looking at the world," Price says.

But PSLM says they are committed to more activism until the University enacts the minimum $10 per hour living wage for all employees.

"The labor gains of the past months are a direct result of public humiliation," Offner says. "It didn't convince me that the University is committed to fair labor practices but that the tactics we are using are effective."

Education for Action

PSLM does more than plan and carry out rallies in support of its campaigns.

Originally founded in 1997 as an organization primarily dedicated to educating students about labor issues, PSLM stills views outreach and education as crucial to achieving its overall goals.

Much of PSLM's work centers around gathering signatures and leafleting members of the Harvard community, including students, Faculty, alumni and workers.

PSLM members have spent the past semester canvassing students door-to-door to educate them about Harvard's labor policies and win their support.

"A year ago [a living wage] was a very controversial thing," Offner says. "You couldn't find someone who questioned Marty Feldstein. The campus is now a place where these things are discussed beyond the level of Ec 10."

PSLM has also appealed to Faculty, mailing out information about the living wage campaign.

About 115 have signed on in support.

PSLM members are now seeking Faculty representatives in each department to canvas their colleagues.

The organization has also made an effort to reach out to alumni. About 150 have signed a pledge not to give money to Harvard until it adopts a living wage, PSLM members say.

In addition to outreach to students and Faculty, PSLM maintains a close relationship with University workers.

Offner says students in the living wage campaign began their involvement by speaking with workers to get a sense of the labor situation at Harvard.

PSLM encourages Harvard employees to give personal testimonies at their rallies.

The organization maintains a particularly close relationship with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), the University's largest union.

PSLM uses HUCTW headquarters on Mass. Ave. to plan rallies and set up phonebanks to call students.

PSLM does not recieve any funding from Harvard's unions.

Most of its funding comes from the University, through the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), of which PSLMt is a member. The organization receives an annual $300 grant from PBHA and has access to Phillips Brooks House and its facilities. PBHA also matches any private donations that PSLM receives.

Most of PSLM's budget goes toward the photocopying of flyers and posters.

Organized Labor Activism

Both students and administrators point to the national resurgence of organized labor as a factor in PSLM's success.

Ryan says the current alliance between students and organized labor represents the first time since the civil rights movement that the two have worked together.

Touborg says PSLM's activism reflects a national pattern.

"Let's agree that the atmosphere on campus is not isolated," she says. "The activism reflects a concern that is not merely demonstrated by some students at Harvard College."

According to PSLM members, their actions reflect a universal fear that some Americans will be left behind in the current economic boom.

"These issues are so successful because everybody has to work," McKean says. "They're very real for people."

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