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Helping Workers Helps Harvard

By Richard C. Lewontin

Dear President Summers:

I urge that you accept the recommendation of the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies that the minimum wage rate for University workers be raised, but that you reject its recommendation that future increases in this wage be subject only to the outcome of so-called “collective bargaining.” Instead, I believe that the same logic that leads to an immediate increase in the wage is also compelling for a periodic cost of living adjustment.

I will not argue, as many have, that the wage should be increased as a matter of morality and justice. My experience is that definitions of social justice, its importance in competition with other demands and how it is to be accomplished, differ markedly from person to person. I strongly suspect that you and I do not agree on any of the three. Rather, I restrict myself purely to practical considerations.

There are three prudential levels that the University needs to consider. First, workers who sense that their employer is squeezing them beyond a widely accepted social norm will work neither efficiently nor well. Especially in cafeteria food service and janitorial work, which are not closely supervised, slowdowns and corner-cutting are easy. If I were a cashier at the Science Center, I would work with “all deliberate speed.” If you expect decent work out of people whose functions are vital to the running of the University then you must pay what is widely regarded as a decent wage.

Second, with the University’s ability to easily replace workers due to the current unemployment rates, the coercive force of the University as an employer cannot be met with the usual power that workers have to withhold their labor in a strike. As a result, the workers must use the only counterforce available to them, which is to enlist the faculty and students on their behalf. The consequence has been, as you have seen, widespread disaffection, disruption of University life and educational function and a breakdown in the communality on which the University depends.

Third, in addition to its role as a producer of technically trained graduates, the University has the important task of propagating a culture that promotes a stable and peaceful society. That is why we require students to take courses in literature and moral reasoning. If, by its actions as an employer, the University embodies narrow rationality and a preoccupation with the “bottom line,” it educates students into a worldview that propagates social strife and instability.

But these same prudential arguments that should lead you to raise the wages of the lowest paid workers apply with equal force to the question of a cost of living adjustment. As inflation continues, a wage that begins as barely sufficient soon becomes a poverty wage. The claim that this can be further adjusted by “collective bargaining” is a piece of pure propaganda. There can be no “collective bargaining” where there is no collectivity and no bargaining power on the part of one of the participants. What will really happen, when the purchasing power of the University’s minimum wage declines to an insufficient level, is a repetition of the same confrontation that has marked this last year. Either you or your successor will once again be faced with a fractured and discontented University, a bad model for its students.

Finally, I should point out what must be obvious to you, that a cost of living adjustment does not involve any increase in constant dollar cost since the University will, as always, increase its income in inflated dollars.

Richard C. Lewontin is Agassiz Research Professor of Zoology and Research Professor of Biology.

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