Bringing The Problem Home

Last fall, the Harvard janitors kicked off their contract campaign, naming it Unidad y Acción (Unity and Action). This past Thursday, they marched with students to University President Lawrence H. Summers’ mansion to demonstrate this unity. Together we demanded a just contract, complete with significant wage raises and affordable health benefits. Now, in the face of Harvard’s obstinacy and arrogance at the bargaining table, janitors—with student support—are escalating their tactics and taking action to achieve all that has been fought for over the last three years.

Thursday’s march to Summers’ home was a temporary disruption to demonstrate our commitment to the janitors’ demands. Yet our disruption pales in comparison to the intrusion that Summers makes everyday in the homes of hundreds of workers through his poverty wage policies. The employment policies that he maintains, via his lackeys at the negotiating table, invade the homes and family lives of hundreds of workers throughout the Boston region everyday.

Contract negotiations between the janitors’ union, the Service Employees International Union Local 254, and the Harvard administration began on Jan. 22, eight months ahead of schedule, due to the agreement that resulted from last spring’s student sit-in in Mass. Hall. During the last three weeks, we have witnessed these negotiations firsthand, and we have been extremely disappointed. The process has not been the civil exchange between honest and respectful partners that Summers and the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies have implied it is in their repeated exaltations of the collective bargaining process. Rather, if you go the Sheraton Commander today at 10 a.m. (negotiations are every Tuesday and open to students) you will see Harvard at its worst: condescending, arrogant, rude, stubborn and, at times, downright dishonest.

After three weeks at the table, Harvard’s negotiators’ most recent offer was for $11 per hour—a miserly 15 cents more than their first offer—and nothing in terms of affordable health insurance. The Harvard negotiators present their offers with disingenuous and patronizing claims to having “worked really hard” and “listened to workers’ needs.” Yet these offers have proven unacceptable to the dozen workers on the union’s bargaining team who know that their families need more than an extra dollar and change to get by. Most currently earn less than $10 per hour. These wage and benefit proposals degrade the value of janitors’ work and insult their families’ needs. Harvard’s intransigence at the bargaining table is so offensive that Edgar Barrios, a Guatemalan immigrant worker at the Business School who is on Local 254’s negotiating team told us, “The management team has no ethics. If they were doctors, all their patients would be dead.”

Harvard’s offers are also unacceptable to many students, faculty and community members who have been rallying for economic justice for the last three years. While Harvard has quadrupled its endowment and increased tuition by more than 50 per cent since 1992, it has cut janitors’ real wages by more than 30 percent during the same period. Moreover, other area universities with much smaller endowments pay their custodians $14 to $16 per hour; Harvard’s $11 offer doesn’t even measure up to that standard and guarantees continued poverty to campus janitors.

What’s more, Harvard has already shown bad faith on the issue of parity. Last month, Summers agreed to the Katz Committee’s recommendation that janitors employed by subcontracted firms receive the same wages and benefits as those hired directly by Harvard. Yet in these past few weeks, when asked to extend benefit proposals to subcontracted employees, Harvard management has cowered, relegating responsibility to outsourcing firms and giving the union no say in how appropriate benefits for subcontracted workers will be determined.

Harvard management’s sham offers and bad faith are even more disturbing to watch when one considers the significant contrast in social, economic and ethnic backgrounds between the two sides of the table. Harvard’s cadre of lawyers—all white save one—consists of high-powered, generously-compensated and fully-benefited employees who enjoy positions of privilege and comfortable lifestyles and salary. On the other side of the table is the union’s team. They are 12 workers of diverse backgrounds but several common experiences—poverty, hardship, incredibly long work hours, immigration, separation from their families, cultural alienation from American society and the constant hurdle of a language barrier. From its position of privilege, Harvard management’s overtures to the janitors are consciously dishonest and reflect an unwillingness to understand what paycheck-to-paycheck life is like.

Summers needs to stop stalling; he can and must eliminate poverty-wage jobs on campus. When the University’s negotiating team comes back to the bargaining table, we expect it to take janitors’ demands seriously. And to ensure that it does, now more than ever, students and faculty must show solidarity with Harvard janitors in their fight for jobs with justice.

Anna L. Falicov ’02-’03 is an urban studies and planning concentrator in Dudley House. Roona Ray ’02-’03 is a biology and women’s studies concentrator in Dudley House. They are members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement.