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High Time for a Living Wage

By Aaron D. Bartley

As I approached the Harvard Law School's Harkness Cafeteria tray drop-off one morning last fall, a hand appeared in the small slit in the wall that divides the kitchen from the dining room. Then I heard someone's voice on the other side of the wall offering to take my tray.

"Thanks, but how did you know I was here? We can't see you at all from this side," I responded. The dishwasher, who I have come to know as Bob, replied "That's a matter of respect, don't you get it?"

My involvement with the Harvard Living Wage Campaign began that afternoon. The sight of Bob's anonymous arm and the cafeteria's multi-million dollar Joan Miro installation that framed it became for me an icon of the skewed institutional values that subject Harvard's working-poor to unnecessary and, in a very real sense, invisible hardship.

As I learned more about Harvard administrators' orchestrated attacks on low-wage service workers--the campaign against the Harvard guards that has reduced the wages and benefits of security guards considerably; the outsourcing of much of the University's dining services to Marriott/Sodexho, a company that recently admitted infringing on its workers' legally protected rights to organize; the increased use of part-time clerical staff who have no access to benefits; the fact that grounds crew workers and engineers have not had a contract or a raise in two years; and the steady decline in janitors' wages over the last ten years--I realized that Bob's frustration and his preoccupation with "respect" were common at Harvard.

Since the class of poverty-wage workers on campus numbers in the thousands and is comprised by immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil and Mexico as well as blacks and whites, any generalization about "the experience" of a typical Harvard janitor or dishwasher is bound to be superficial. But life on $7-per-hour in the preposterously expensive Boston metro region does present certain standard challenges. Skyrocketing rents force a mean choice for Harvard's janitors, dining workers and security guards: Work literally 85 hours a week to bring home the money needed to pay the $1,100 one-bedroom rents that prevail in the few low-income neighborhoods left in Boston and Cambridge, or commute in from far-away postindustrial towns like Lowell and Worcester where a 65-hour work week is sufficient to provide life's basic necessities. Either option leaves precious little time for anything but work. Families, creative interests and personal health suffer the consequences.

Why, after countless public events organized by students and workers, a petition signed by more than one thousand students and 150 faculty--including professors across the ideological spectrum from Cornel R. West '74 to former Sen. Alan K. Simpson--and several resolutions passed by the Cambridge City Council has President Neil L. Rudenstine failed to commit to a living wage? Why do Rudenstine and company seem to believe that the question of the living wage will fade away if only they wait long enough? The minimal cost of implementation--only one-half of one percent of the interest on the endowment--cannot explain administrators' intractable stance. Perhaps Rudenstine and the labyrinthine Harvard management apparatus prefer that all decisions, even those that define the character of the Harvard community, be made in obscurity and according to a limited set of priorities.

Much of the dominant economic discourse reinforces the inevitability and "efficiency" of current economic arrangements, both at Harvard and in broader society. Low-income people work 80 hours a week, the thinking goes, because their productivity is low, or because it's rational for them to do so, or because "the market" says so.

The Living Wage Campaign has, from its inception, approached the reality of work at Harvard from a different perspective. Harvard's service workers have suffered over the last ten years--in the midst of the boom that has enriched Boston's professional classes--because the University has aggressively pursued policies like out-sourcing and part-timing. These tactics were self-consciously designed to transfer dollars from the pockets of service workers to the investment accounts of Harvard management, which keeps track of the endowment. They were implemented by a small set of upper-level managers without the input of students and against the strong protestations of many Harvard employees.

Through its efforts the Living Wage Campaign has initiated a critical process of reassessing the way Harvard's decisions are made, especially when community-wide values are at stake. Such a process, built on the foundation of a living wage policy, is Harvard's best hope of avoiding the empty ostentation, ridiculous disparity and for-profit corporate mentality that threatens to consume the other purposes to which it is charged, like the advancement of the democratic ideal and the construction of a moral community. It is to these later objectives that the Living Wage Campaign commits itself this afternoon at the rally in Harvard Yard.

Aaron D. Bartley is a second year law student at the Harvard Law School. He is a member of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign.

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