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More than 600 Harvard workers, their families, community members and students protested University employment policies Monday, in preparation for the beginning of the custodial union’s contract negotiations.
Organized by Service Employees International Union Local 254, which represents Harvard’s unionized janitors, the rally filled the Unitarian-Universalist First Church of Cambridge and was followed by a 25-minute march to the Holyoke Center, through rainy conditions and slush.
The contract negotiations began yesterday at the Sheraton Commander Hotel on Garden Street, one year ahead of schedule, as part of an agreement which ended last spring’s Mass. Hall occupation by the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM).
At yesterday’s rally, Union representatives called for a wage that allows workers to live with “dignity and respect,” but did not offer specifics on their negotiation targets.
The rally took place on the federal holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and speakers pointed to King’s support for Memphis sanitation workers as a part of his “legacy of struggle on behalf of working people.”
The rally was conducted in English and Spanish and drew several high-profile politicians, including former Secretary of Labor and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Robert B. Reich.
“Although I do not speak Spanish, I do speak the language of workers’ rights,” he said.
Reich went on to attack the wage gap between rich and poor, which he said widened dramatically during the 1990s.
Workers are “part of a community, not simply participants in an economy,” Reich said. “A great university can and should set a great example.”
Boston City Council member Chuck Turner ’62 said that the issue of improving workers’ wages is also a racial matter.
“The reality is that the majority of those workers are workers of color,” he said.
Turner said that he thought Harvard was founded on values of white male supremacy.
“It’s a struggle to continue the change of values in this country—we have to have justice for all if we are going to be able to call ourselves a democracy,” he said.
State legislators Alice Wolf and Jarrett T. Barrios ’90 also spoke at the rally, as did members of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign.
“We are angry that the richest university in the world cannot even pay respect to its workers,” said Roona Ray ’02, a member of PSLM.
She also attacked University President Lawrence H. Summers’ longer than expected consideration of the recommendations of the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies. The committee’s Dec. 18 report supports pay increases and equalization of pay between directly employed workers and subcontracted ones.
Pedro Antonio Noguera, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, called Harvard’s employment policies “a crime and a disgrace,” and said that “if [Summers] wants a peaceful spring, he’ll deal with this soon.”
Other speakers attacked both Harvard and Summers.
Responding to Reich’s comments, Boston civil rights activist Mel King said that “Harvard is not a great institution. If it were a great institution, we would not be here advocating for justice.”
Terming Harvard a “terrorizer,” he said that “the only way you fight this kind of terrorism is a coalition which believes in justice.”
Ed Childs, Adams House Cook and Chief Shop Steward for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 26, which represents Harvard’s dining hall workers, also criticized Summers.
“We’re here to tell Larry Summers, what he got away with in Washington, he won’t get away with that here,” Childs said.
In addition to workers and students, the rally drew adherents of a wide variety of liberal and radical causes. At the door, petitioners solicited signatures in support of affirmative action. In front of the church, people passed out copies of “The Workers’ Vanguard” and “The Militant,” while the communist Progressive Labor Party passed out fliers inside.
—Staff writer Ross A. Macdonald can be reached at email@example.com.
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