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Take Over: PSLM Sits In

By Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writer

Last year, it was Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. This year, God came out in support of a living wage.

Or so proclaimed one of the many banners hanging for the trees of Harvard Yard during the longest sit-in in University history, as more than 20 members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) occupied Mass. Hall for three weeks to call for a living wage of at least $10.25 per hour for all Harvard employees.

Supporters of the sit-in transformed the normally pristine Yard, decorating the windows of the president’s office with colorful home-made signs, erecting a “tent city” with a resident mayor, doctor, musicians and jugglers, and organizing daily rallies and vigils, some attracting more than 1,000 students, workers and community activists.

PSLM members occupying the administrative building drew strength from deliveries of home-baked food and impromptu messages of support from local and national politicians including U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 (D-Mass.), former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.

Finally, on May 8, the 23 PSLM members remaining in Mass. Hall exited the administrative building to applause, red roses and a set of promises to reexamine workers' issues at the University.

The decision to leave the administrative building came after a marathon negotiation session that included high-ranking AFL-CIO officials and top Harvard administrators, including General Counsel Anne Taylor, Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Paul S. Grogan and Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley.

The University agreed to form a new committee, with student and worker representatives, to report back to incoming University President Lawrence H. Summers by Dec. 19 on all aspects of workers’ benefits, including outsourcing and the possibility of implementing a living wage.

The agreement also promised to reopen contract negotiations with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing Harvard’s janitors, four weeks after the committee issues its report. The new contract for SEIU members, some of whom earn less than a living wage, will be retroactive to May 1 of this year.

Additionally, the University issued a moratorium on new outsourcing until the committee issues its report.

The agreement--which PSLM members unilaterally characterized as a “victory”--concluded a year that began with a series of low-profile, light-hearted actions and ended with the longest building occupation in University history.

With the sit-in behind them, PSLM members vow to continue to work for a living wage. They are already meeting with members of the newly formed committee and many PSLM members have decided to spend the summer to work with Harvard’s unions.

“That it’s a victory doesn’t mean we’re going to go home and forget about the issue,” said third-year law student and PSLM member Aaron D. Bartley. “It’s more important than ever now that we have these structures. The word we keep using is vigilant. We need to stay organized.”

Back Where It All Begins

The activism this spring came after a relatively quiet first semester in the three-year-old campaign for a living wage.

A year ago, in response to PSLM’s calls for a living wage, a high-ranking committee of faculty members and administrators released a 100-page report recommending that the University enlarge the scope of worker benefits, including health insurance, education and access to campus facilities, but not raise wages.

PSLM members unilaterally rejected the recommendations and attempted to continue agitating, but found administrators unwilling to listen.

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

“We were aware that it would be difficult to move the administration beyond the position that the report was satisfactory,” Bartley said.

“We knew we were in for a long struggle over that question,” he continued. “Once that committee report emerged, the administration would use it to prevent substantive progress from being made on the issue.”

PSLM actions in the fall often involved fewer people and a more light-hearted approach than the string of public rallies that characterized much of the campaign’s history.

On Valentine’s Day, about a dozen PSLM members walked for hours in cold, rainy weather through the streets of residential Cambridge attempting to deliver home-made pro-living wage cards to top administrators. Despite getting lost, they managed to successfully surprise Rudenstine at his Brattle Street residence.

Bartley said he remembers that rainy night in particular as an action that was only successful in that it “kept the core group of people working on this issue together.”

“The administration was definitely aware that PSLM was very much alive,” Bartley said.

But these actions just did not cause administrators to budge.

“The administration is willing to listen to us plenty, but they don’t give any indication of responding,” Madeline S. Elfenbein ’04 said in February. “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.”

Aim For The Top

At the start of second semester, PSLM members resolved to change the focus of their actions, and moved to target the Harvard Corporation as the University’s ultimate decision-making body.

They hoped that by focusing on the Corporation they would force the administration to implement a living wage and galvanize students to change the inner workings of the University.

But the students said their attempts to set up a meeting with Corporation members were unsuccessful and ultimately disillusioning.

McKean said he remembered asking Rudenstine whether students could sit in at a Corporation meeting during the president’s office hours earlier this year.

Rudenstine simply stared, McKean said, and swirled his tonic water for about 30 seconds before telling McKean that the Corporation usually deliberates alone.

Stymied by the official bureaucracy, the students then decided to try more creative ways to reach the seemingly elusive Corporation members.

In February, PSLM members spent a weekend in New York, attempting to track down Corporation members at their homes and offices.

They visited Corporation member Conrad K. Harper’s home in Connecticut, were escorted out of D. Ron Daniel’s office at McKinsey and Co., and leafleted the Harvard Club of New York.

Later that month, PSLM members held a “Hunt for the Corporation” rally, leading students from University Hall to Loeb House holding cardboard effigies of Corporation members with the name, company affiliation and net worth of each emblazoned on the head and body.

But the change in strategy did not have any real results.

In April, Grogan said the issue would not be reopened, regardless of the number of student actions aimed at Corporation members.

“This simply won’t be an effective tactic in causing the University to reopen a question it has already engaged in very comprehensively and very seriously,” Grogan said.

Lights, Camera, Action

The months immediately preceding the sit-in were also marked by a brief flurry of media attention as PSLM held a series of rallies that coincided with the announcement that Lawrence H. Summers would succeed Rudenstine as University president.

About 30 PSLM members garnered extensive media coverage for their cause with a hastily organized protest outside the press conference announcing Summers’ selection.

The students called for a less secretive presidential search process and a living wage--marching outside Loeb House, banging recycling bins and chanting loudly throughout the course of the press conference.

About 150 students and a dozen members of the media attended PSLM’s first rally of the year, held the day after the University announced Summers as the president-elect.

Although the rally did not feature any celebrity speakers and did not attract more students than rallies in the past, a news helicopter flew overhead as the students marched across the Yard, armed with a loudspeaker and drums.

But the increased burst of media attention did not translate into higher wages, as the PSLM members had hoped.

The administration continued to point to the report released last spring as the extent of their movement on the issue, and as a result, PSLM members said they were left no choice but to escalate their campaign.

“We’re not a student group--we’re a campaign and campaigns end,” McKean said earlier this year. “We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure it ends this semester.”

Staying Power

So at 1:23 p.m. on April 18, after weeks of quiet planning, nearly 50 PSLM members stormed Mass. Hall. They said they would remain indefinitely to demand a living wage.

“We wish we didn’t have to do this, but we have to because the administration has resisted all the attempts at dialogue we’ve had in the past,” said PSLM member Amy C. Offner ’01.

At the start of the sit-in, administrators showed no intention of budging.

In the opening days, Rudenstine issued a statement pledging not to negotiate with the protesters while they occupied his office.

“The view that efforts at coercion and disruption, as opposed to discussion and persuasion, represent a proper means to achieve a desired result is mistaken, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university,” he said.

For days, the administration and the students occupying the building appeared to have reached a standstill.

Despite the administration’s refusal to negotiate, the sit-in gained momentum, gathering endorsements from local politicians and even sparking a “counter-protest” from first-years living above the protesters in Mass. Hall and in surrounding Yard dorms.

The protesters held daily noon rallies outside Mass. Hall that attracted up to 1,000 supporters over the course of the sit-in. They organized nightly vigils, featuring spoken word poetry and folk music.

But administrators continued to refuse to negotiate with the students while the occupation of the building continued.

The tide seemed to turn, however, as the student protesters built a strong base of support among House Masters and faculty members.

On the fourth day of the Mass. Hall occupation, Masters of all the Houses issued a letter urging administrators to negotiate with the student protesters.

“We urge that a process be put in place to move beyond the present impasse,” the letter read. “We suggest a face to face meeting between student leaders and the administration and a step-by-step plan for a larger community dialogue.”

The faculty support for the students occupying the building manifested itself in the response to missed work and classes.

Professors and teaching fellows chose to lead class outside the open Mass. Hall windows. While HUPD rules did not permit anything but food inside the building, some professors risked arrest to deliver smuggle papers and books to the students inside.

The first real suggestion of a resolution came at an emergency faculty meeting called on April 27 to discuss the sit-in, at which Rudenstine announced his intention to form a new committee to reexamine issues of low-paid workers at Harvard.

As a result of the decision to reopen the issue, 12 out of the 13 House Masters issued a second open letter, this time calling on PSLM members to end the sit-in.

“We believe that students have brought this phase of their campaign to a successful completion and we urge them to come out of Massachusetts Hall in a peaceable fashion, to permit normal life to return to the premises, and to allow the orderly work of the University to resume,” the letter read.

Momentum built over the next week as PSLM members--who said they had not yet been approached with any official agreement--remained in the building.

The largest rally at Harvard in at least a decade--billed by PSLM members as “unprecedented”--managed to attract about 1,100 supporters to hear AFL-CIO’s Sweeney offer PSLM a “message of support.”

The students also won more visible support from local union chapters. An evening rally of about 250 dining hall workers spilled over into Mass. Ave. Chanting, “The people united, will never be divided,” dining hall workers and supporters occupied the Mass. Ave median strip, dodging through traffic as passing cars honked in support.

PSLM members said they drew inspiration from the unexpected outpouring of support from workers, many of whom joined the daily noon rallies during their lunch breaks, wearing crimson work jackets and chanting.

“It was an exciting place to be,” Bartley said. “I miss the activity, even just on the cultural level of seeing stuff that isn’t the pristine Harvard Yard,” Bartley said.

But as “tent city” spread across the Yard and rallies continued to attract record numbers, administrators began to take measures against what they deemed a threat to both security and the sanity of the students preparing for finals in surrounding Yard dorms.

Increased security concerns over the outsiders the protesters were attracting and an assault on a security guard prompted administrators to close the Yard between 9 p.m and 7 a.m., and only allow people with Harvard ID’s into the area.

In addition, citing “intolerable” noise levels around the occupied Mass. Hall, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 banned amplification in the Yard beginning May 7 for the remainder of the academic year.

Just two days later, more than 24 hours of negotiations came to a close as PSLM members announced that they had reached an agreement with the University and would leave the occupied administrative building.

The exit came with the promise of a new committee, which will be chaired by Professor of Economics Lawrence Katz.

With 11 faculty members, two administrators, three unionized workers and four students--two undergraduates and two graduates--the new committee represents a dramatic departure from both its predecessor and from other University committees, which almost never include students. McKean and Matthew Milikowsky ’02, selected by the Undergraduate Council, will serve on behalf of the undergraduate body on the committee.

The committee met for the first time last Thursday.

Although the committee’s report and recommendations will not be binding, both Harvard spokesperson Joe Wrinn and PSLM members have expressed their belief that the committee’s findings are likely to guide Harvard’s employment policies.

Looking back, McKean said, he never would have expected the year to end on such a promising note for the

“In September, I certainly didn’t expect to be sitting on a committee that would decide labor policy for the school,” McKean said. “It just blows my mind.”

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