Why Janitors Are Willing To Go To Jail

At 4:45 p.m. tomorrow, a small number of janitors and community leaders are planning to engage in an act of civil disobedience in the heart of Harvard Square. They know that they are likely to be arrested for this act. After years of working for poverty wages and weeks of stalled negotiations with the Harvard administration, these courageous few will be the first to sacrifice their freedom in protest of Harvard’s employment policies. They have asked the Harvard community to be there to support them.

So far, Harvard’s negotiating team has refused to raise janitors’ wages to the relative levels they were at ten years ago (or to the levels of other area universities) and they have offered no proposals for making health insurance more affordable as the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies report suggested they should. Despite President Lawrence H. Summers’ numerous statements about showing workers the respect that they deserve, his negotiators have offered them only nickels and dimes. No matter how clearly they explain what kind of wages and benefits they need to live a decent life, janitors have been unable to get the Harvard administration to listen to them. In order to pressure Harvard to make good on its rhetoric, janitors are asking for the rest of the community to join in the struggle. The newest stage of the escalation begins tomorrow.

It is easy for us, as Harvard students, to dismiss the need for public protests as a supplement to intellectual discussion. When we pass by a “Justice for Janitors” protest, we sometimes wonder, “Don’t these people have good enough arguments to rationally debate the issue instead of making all this noise and taking their cause to the streets?” This is essentially what former University President Neil L. Rudenstine was saying in his statement during last spring’s sit-in, which he e-mailed to every student in the College. He argued that “the view that efforts at coercion and disruptions, as opposed to discussion and persuasion, represent a proper means to achieve a desired result is a mistake, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university.” This argument ignores several of the basic facts of social protest and what the prerequisites of meaningful discussion and persuasion really are.

First, the oft-repeated idea that janitors and their supporters could somehow “coerce” an $18 billion corporation that owns its own police force, legal and media bureaus and the very land they walk on, is clearly ludicrous. Janitors, students, faculty, and community members have no representation on the Harvard Corporation and vastly fewer resources at their disposal; they do not have the power to “force” Harvard to adopt fairer labor policies or even to force it to negotiate in good faith. In fact, the only significant limit on the Harvard administration’s response to its critics is its desire to avoid drawing attention to poverty on campus.

Indeed, as Rudenstine’s statement (probably unintentionally) implies, Harvard does have the duty to provide avenues for the community to influence Harvard’s policies without resorting to disruption. Unfortunately, no institutions have been put in place that guarantee that the administration pays more than lip service to the results of community discussion. Harvard’s newest president has reserved the right to ignore any of the views of the community with which he personally disagrees.

Without protests that cause some disruption to University life, Harvard administrators have seen no reason even to respond to the arguments against poverty wages. Until janitors and students chose to disrupt the status quo, the only side of the story that most people knew was Harvard’s. Unlike the Harvard administration, janitors do not have dozens of people working full-time to get their message out. All they have is the courage of their conviction that they deserve justice and their willingness to make deep sacrifices to get it. They do not have the power to force Harvard to do what they know is right, but they do have the ability, through peaceful demonstrations of their commitment, to make sure that their story is heard. When the president of Harvard wants everyone to know his opinion, he can simply send an e-mail out to every single one of us or publish a piece in the Gazette. When Harvard workers have something to say, they need to find a way to make sure Harvard does not drown their voices out.

During the past year, we have seen what happens when the real story of poverty at the world’s richest university gets out. Arguments that for years had fallen on the deaf ears of administrators made a lot of sense to everyone else. Suddenly, those same arguments merited a committee, new contract negotiations, and (eventually) major changes in Harvard’s policies. We found out that meaningful discussion began only after direct action brought some light to Harvard’s darker corners.

Today, Summers and Harvard’s negotiating team are betting that everyone has stopped paying attention to the lives of low-wage workers at Harvard and that they can safely resume negotiating with “cut costs at all costs” as their dictum. We have a chance to prove them wrong.

Harvard’s janitors still have stories to tell and are willing to go to jail in order to give us a chance to hear them. They are willing to make this sacrifice because they need the community to stand with them in demanding their right to earn enough to support their families and take care of them when they are sick. We have an obligation not only to tolerate their voices, but also to join with them to amplify their call for justice.

Ariel Z. Weisbard ’02-’03 is co-chair of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and a member of the Progressive Student Labor Movement.