The Living Wage Fight

Labor movement successes of past year incomplete without assessment of wage floor

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Class of 1992, were among the many faces, famous and otherwise, who joined the fight for a living wage for Harvard workers in the past year. One of the most important voices was that of the University Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies, who after 13 months of work issued a report calling for increased benefits--but no pay hike. While Damon and Affleck were little more than eye-candy, they provided the media attention the University no doubt has hoped to avoid. The rally was the culmination of year-long efforts by the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) to draw attention to Harvard's lowest-paid workers, efforts that included sit-ins, occupation of Byerly Hall during pre-frosh weekend, teach-ins and more.

The Harvard Living Wage Campaign has consistently pushed for a base pay level for all workers, permanent and temporary, that would allow them to live in Cambridge. They have called for a $10.25 an hour base level of pay, adjusted for inflation from $10, which has been adopted by the Cambridge city council as the official Cambridge living wage. The Ad-Hoc Committee's report, which President Neil L. Rudenstine's has accepted and committed the University to fulfilling, has focused almost exclusively on health and job training benefits and bracketed the central issue of wages. In this way, the University's response is far from adequate.

When enacted, the committee's recommendations will extend basic health insurance to nearly all of Harvard's non-casual workforce, including those subcontracted by outside firms and expand programs in job and educational training. Harvard employees who work 16 or more hours a week will be eligible for health benefits; previously, such benefits were reserved only for employees who worked at least 20 hours a week. The University will also refuse to contract with firms that do not provide health insurance for their employees. Furthermore, employees will have more access to job training and educational development programs, such as classes in English and basic mathematics.


Despite the promise that lies in these concessions, there is nothing about these expansions in fringe benefits that guarantees a living wage for all Harvard's workers. Health insurance and on-the-job training are valuable benefits to workers, but they cannot account for the costs of food, clothing and shelter. Harvard must make clear whether or not the increased benefits will allow Harvard employees to live above poverty level in Cambridge. If not, then the University should adopt a minimum per-hour pay level for all workers. Perhaps such a calculation will be more than just a simple figure, one that takes into account the marginal value of benefits at various wage levels. For example, many subcontracted workers, particularly guards employed by SSI and janitors employed by UNICCO, currently earn wages far lower than their Harvard counterparts in addition to not receiving health benefits. For these workers, simply adding health benefits might not be as valuable as a pay raise. Since Harvard has so far dismissed a discussion of actual wages of these subcontracted workers in favor of fringe benefits, there is no way of knowing whether the actual conditions of workers have been sufficiently alleviated.

We are not entirely convinced that this means a wage floor can be ignored entirely. The committee neglected to propose any alternative method by which to determine if this total compensation actually places a worker above the poverty line in Cambridge. Regardless of how a worker's compensation is computed, it needs to be placed in relation to this minimum level. The job of computing the appropriate level of compensation falls on Harvard's shoulders. The committee's job--and the University's commitment to its workers--will not be complete until such a good-faith assessment has been made.

The committee worked for 13 months on its recommendations, and the 100-page report is comprehensive. But this doesn't mean that the University can rest now. We remain unconvinced that workers will receive a living wage if the recommendations are implemented, and while Rudenstine has committed himself to implementing them, there has been no discussion of how and when Harvard will do so. Until every Harvard worker is earning a living wage, this work is not done.

The PSLM attacked an issue that every student can relate to, one with the human face of the janitors and dining hall workers we see everyday. The report by the Ad Hoc Committee was a direct result of their efforts. Harvard speaks often about the creation of community for undergraduates. The living wage campaign has been about all of the members of the Harvard community, including workers.

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