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A (More) Silent Struggle

After Low-Profile Semester, Living Wage Campaign Pledges Strong Action

By Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writer

Members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) have established their campaign for a living wage as one of the most visible causes on campus, galvanizing hundreds of students and community members through two and a half years of agitation.

They have staged countless public rallies, camped out in front of the Science Center and occupied the admissions office--calling for a living wage of at least $10.25 per hour for all Harvard employees.

And their very visible presence has had a significant effect.

Last spring, a high-ranking committee of faculty members and administrators released a 100-page report--after 13 months of research--recommending that the University enlarge the scope of worker benefits, including health insurance, education and access to campus facilities.

PSLM members did not endorse the recommendations and vowed to continue to fight for a living wage.

"[The report] really shows us how entrenched the administration's resistance is [to a living wage]," says PSLM member Madeleine S. Elfenbein '04.

Despite members' dissatisfaction with the committee's findings, the report did change the dynamic of the campaign this past semester.

Campaign organizers have responded by taking a less visible approach to the campaign--temporarily foregoing the public rallies so central to their cause last year to instead strengthen relationships with Harvard unions, faculty and fellow campus groups.

Members say their months of strategic behind-the-scenes work leave them poised for the most active semester in the campaign's brief history.

Students say they plan to up the ante over the next several months with a series of creative, forceful actions, with the goal of winning a living wage by the summer.

"We will have to take more risks this semester," says PSLM member Matt R. Skomarovsky '02.

"We're not a student group--we're a campaign and campaigns end," says Benjamin L. McKean '02, a member of PSLM. "We're going to do everything in our power to make sure it ends this semester."

Changing Focus

At the beginning of the year, the student protesters say they had to redefine their plan of attack.

"We had to spend quite a bit of time last semester reevaluating our strategy given the administration's unwillingness [to raise wages]," Skomarovsky says. "The report showed us how out of touch with reality the administration really is."

Campaign members say that the administration's conclusions fail to get to the root of the problem.

"They were granting museum passes to workers instead of a living wage," Elfenbein says. "It doesn't really address the issue of poverty."

Members say that while it was discouraging, last spring's report did not weaken the campaign--it merely changed the focus.

"This is not a frightening obstacle," says PSLM member Amy C. Offner '01. "We're not worried at all by their resistance. We faced even greater resistance at first. It's not a big deal, we just have to continue with what we're doing."

So in addition to staging a variety of light-hearted actions and a mock Christmas pageant, living wage campaign members have spent the past semester meeting with students and campus workers to garner support for their cause.

"Not all work is adequately done by public actions," Offner says. "We've had to spend a fair amount of time doing research and laying the structure for the future."

Targeting The Top

Campaign members have resolved, then, to change the focus of their actions--targeting the Harvard Corporation as the University's ultimate decision-making body.

"We basically just discovered the existence of the Corporation as our major obstacle this semester," Elfenbein says. "It was sort of an overwhelming discovery."

Earlier in the semester the living wage campaign tried to schedule a meeting with the Corporation, but did not meet with success.

Skomarovsky says they received a disheartening letter back from Loeb House--where the Corporation meets--saying that the living wage issue was not members' concern.

"They refused even to consider to meet with us," Skomarobsky says.

With this refusal, campaign members say they have, in a sense, exhausted the traditional channels to enact change.

Light-hearted actions--like delivering Valentine's Day cards or cookies to administrators--will not suffice.

"The administration is willing to listen to us plenty, but they don't give any indication of responding," Elfenbein says. "They have a soft spot for us, but only as long as we are willing to run our head up against the brick wall of administrative indifference."

On Deck

Having laid a groundwork of campus support this past semester, campaign members say they are ready to begin the semester with bolder actions.

They say it is the only way they can hope to be heard by the administration.

When speaking of the plans for actions this semester, Skomarovsky smiles.

"I can't say everything," he says. "But we definitely want to be much more assertive."

Organizers are currently planning a large rally to bolster student support for the cause.

McKean says he hopes the upcoming semester's actions--the first to take place within a week--will directly impact administrators.

"I think the administration forgets how difficult it is to exist on a living wage," says McKean, who is also a Crimson editor. "It's a good idea to give them some taste of difficulty."

And campaign members say they are excited by the prospect of upping the ante.

In fact, McKean says, membership has almost doubled over the past semester.

"We feel like it's time to really harness the immense amount of support we have here," Skomarovsky says. "The next move is ours."

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