Little Progress on Living Wage

People who work in the Harvard community should be able to live above the poverty line and raise their families here. This conviction drives the Harvard Living Wage Campaign and its single demand for a minimum $10 per hour living wage for every service worker at Harvard. This $10 figure is derived in part from the proposed living wage ordinance for the city of Cambridge. The studies of the National Low-Income Housing Commission, the Women's Leadership Forum and other local agencies estimate wages of closer to $15 per hour necessary to live in the Cambridge/Boston area.

Students in the campaign have spoken with hundreds of workers about their jobs and their wages. We have discovered untold stories at Harvard, stories of employees' lives and work and struggles. We have dispersed information and garnered a broad base of support from other students, faculty, alumni, faith communities and the city of Cambridge. We have demonstrated nonviolently. Since the campaign's beginnings, many have noted that our single demand and the convictions that drive it are really quite basic, that they reflect a common-sense respect for human dignity and fair employment.

The two individuals with the most power to implement a University-wide living wage policy, President Neil L. Rudenstine and Provost Harvey V. Fineberg '67, do not yet seem to see this. Nearly two months after the Living Wage Campaign sent a letter requesting a meeting with the president and provost to discuss commitment to a living wage (by May 1, 1999) and implementation of a living wage (by Sept. 1, 1999), that meeting finally took place two weeks ago. Rudenstine did not attend. In the cordial and candid meeting, Fineberg announced that he and the president are delegating the issue to a faculty/administration task force--an Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies selected by the president that has no timeline, excludes students and workers, does not reflect the diversity of the service worker staff at Harvard and has only the power to make recommendations.


The Living Wage Campaign does not object to the existence of the task force. We appreciate its focus on the situation of the "contingent workforce" of casual and sub-contracted employees. Furthermore, we look forward to any conclusions it might reach, since our own research committee has discovered the difficulty of attaining accurate and comprehensive labor statistics from Harvard. But we have insisted all along that the task force must decide how, not whether, to implement the living wage, and the provost made clear in our recent meeting that the task force has no such charge. We left the meeting cognizant that two potential channels for the implementation of a living wage--real leadership by the president and provost or the positive conclusions of a task force with the power to implement according to a certain deadline--have been simultaneously closed.

We therefore have openly renewed our commitment to two primary methods: expanding our broad base of support and bringing additional nonviolent pressure to bear upon the Harvard administration. The president and the provost need to take decisive action. Their response thus far to the Campaign does not capture the urgency of the situation. Our intensified action will clarify this urgency.

The Harvard administration has crafted its own language to discuss this issue, weaving together careful catch-phrases while avoiding the clear moral imperative of a living wage. Prominent in their argument is "total compensation"--the strange notion that workers should not demand a wage sufficient to live if they receive some package of benefits and time off. But most casual and subcontracted workers do not receive "total compensation" packages. Perhaps Harvard would do well to supplement a living wage with these packages, so its workers and their families could live well above the poverty line. Benefits and a living wage do not have to be mutually exclusive.

We would simply hope that the suggestion of a living wage would not be a ridiculous proposition for an institution with an endowment of $13 billion, whose income totaled $1.52 billion in fiscal year 1997 and whose fundraising campaign last year yielded more than $1 billion. Last year Harvard paid a single Harvard employee (Jonathan Jacobson, the fund manager of the Harvard Management Company) $10 million. If Harvard really believes that the notion of "total compensation" will lift all boats, why don't we begin by paying Mr. Jacobson in benefits and time off rather than in cash?

The president and the provost have also indicated Harvard's obligation to exercise "fiscal prudence," to maintain high academic standards while avoiding significant increases in tuition. These fiscal responsibilities are important, to be sure. But Harvard's primary income is not from tuition, and its primary expenses are not service employee wages. We must reevaluate the priorities of our University community, and at the same time, keep some perspective. Harvard spends plenty of money on wine and cheese at the Faculty Club. Is this fiscally prudent? In this bastion of wealth, why are presently-low service worker wages considered some outrageous expense? The increased-tuition argument attempts to set students against workers, as if Harvard had a low budget and we were the only two groups in the University community who had to fight over the crumbs.

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