With the living wage campaign's Massachusetts Hall sit-in heading into its ninth day, neither side seems willing to budge. The students, bolstered by growing high-profile support, House Masters’ food and an ever-expanding “Tent City” outside in the Yard, say they are willing to stay through Commencement if need be. Meanwhile, the University stands firm, sending out spokesperson Joe Wrinn with the same tired message day after day: “We’re certainly not going to speak to them while they’re occupying a building,” he said Sunday. The University will not negotiate until it has cajoled the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) out of the only leverage they have by making them leave the building—and then they can go back to a few more years of empty “dialogue” until PSLM’s leaders graduate.
Sure, PSLM has made some mistakes in its three-year campaign for a living wage. Greeting President-elect Lawrence H. Summers with a contentious rally from the get-go wasn’t a great idea, and the sit-in’s first few days—with sleep-deprived Yard residents raising a ruckus and a daytime rally accidentally drowning out a Holocaust Remembrance Day reading nearby—seemed to only hurt the campaign, not help it. But over the past five days the tide turned, with the protesters gaining the support of both Massachusetts senators, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and nearly every pair of House Masters across campus. And with the change, the focus has returned to why 46 students occupied Mass. Hall in the first place: to counter the University’s refusal, following the release of its ad hoc committee report last spring, to consider any further meaningful discussion on a living wage.
Behind Harvard’s carefully measured rhetoric lies a masterfully orchestrated public relations game, one that seeks to give the appearance of responsiveness in front of a shroud of inaction. After PSLM agitated for over a year, the University responded with a nicely-crafted package which gave its workers increased health benefits and programs to boost literacy and improve their job skills—but which also shot down a living wage. In the year-plus since, administrators have referred time and again to these moderate reforms as proof that they care. But they have also used them as a shield against the living wage campaign’s response that free museum passes and computer skills may be wonderful, but they don’t pay the rent.
With an impending change in the presidency, Harvard has a ready-made excuse for pushing off the implementation of a living wage even further into the hazy, indefinite future. According to a statement by PSLM member Alexander B. Horowitz ’02 in Perspective’s extra last week, outgoing President Neil L. Rudenstine recently told campaign members that it would take his successor a year or two to get “acclimated” to the issue. Apparently it will take one of the nation’s foremost economics minds at least a year to grasp the basics of a relatively straightforward proposal.
As deans and administrators are wont to complain, increasing an operating budget by $10 million—the most expensive estimate for the living wage’s cost—is no easy task. But neither is raising $1 million in a day, as Rudenstine managed to do during his capital campaign heyday. Giving the lowest-paid workers a big raise will cause friction with the workers just above them on the pay scale, perhaps requiring a small raise for the second group as well. But if the University really wanted to increase its budget, it could—causing barely a dent in its $19 billion endowment.
But more than being about money, the living wage is, in the end, a moral issue. Intricately intertwined with the living wage cause is Harvard’s increasing reliance on subcontracting for its workers, a practice which has steadily weakened campus unions, leaving PSLM to fight for the hundreds of subcontracted workers which Harvard does not count in its living wage calculations. The campaign also draws attention to how little real control undergraduates have over the College’s future, whether it be through blocking group size, the selection of Harvard’s new president or the ability of its workers to make ends meet without working two or three jobs. And, most importantly, the living wage campaign is about convincing a resistant University to enact much-needed change.
Yes, Harvard doesn’t have to enact a living wage—Harvard, and only Harvard, has ultimate control over internal matters such as its workers’ pay. And most of the time, Harvard does whatever it pleases. But as a supposedly nonprofit educational institution—and the richest, most visible and powerful one in the world at that—Harvard has the opportunity to genuinely take care of its workers in a way that companies in the free market usually cannot. By enacting a living wage, the University can begin to become an ideological leader once more, not just a number-crunching behemoth.
But why change the status quo when you don’t need to, even if 30-odd pesky students are camped out in your office?
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