Harvard’s Invisible Victims

Two weeks ago, the campus witnessed an outpouring of student support for Jesse Armstrong, a fired shuttle driver known for his ability to connect with students. Quad e-mail lists erupted as people tried to figure out what had happened to everyone’s favorite shuttle driver. Worried students made phone calls, and one junior even proclaimed a “No Shuttle Day,” calling for a boycott.

It is clear that students care about the campus workers they interact with on a daily basis. When they believe that a worker they know and appreciate is being treated unfairly, they protest, demanding that he or she be treated with justice. The resounding support recently demonstrated for Armstrong should hearten those who work on Harvard’s campus, for whom student support can help close the gap between a job with poverty wages and a decent job with dignity.

Yet few people who work on campus are as visible as Armstrong. From nighttime security guards to daytime dishwashers, Harvard has thousands of workers whom most students never see. These people face issues of job insecurity and mistreatment every day; we just don’t see it when it happens.

If students agree on the basic premise that our own personal connection to a campus worker should not determine what happens to her if she is treated unjustly, we must insist that Harvard protect the rights of all workers, not just the most visible ones, and enforce a labor code of conduct to this end.

The case of Fidel E. Solano, a longtime security guard employed under the security firm Allied-Barton, highlights the need for such a code of conduct. According to Emerson Harris, Solano’s volunteer representative from the Service Employees International Union, after not being paid fully for the hours he had worked, Solano was forced to choose between paying his rent and paying for his heart medication. Harris reports that, having foregone the much needed medication, Solano had a heart attack in Lamont in January 2006. Invisible to most students, with no union to represent him, he is still struggling to force Harvard to recognize his rights.

This is not an isolated case. Unbeknownst to most students, over a hundred security guards have seen their jobs outsourced and their union quietly crushed over the past decade.

Two years ago, under the pretext of a budget crunch, library and technical workers were laid off. Of those who remain, several have told the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) that they’ve been threatened with termination for speaking out. Janitors and dining hall workers, although they’ve won higher wages and benefits in the wake of student-worker campaigns, report continuing incidents of harassment and discrimination on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, Harvard has refused to sign on to the Designated Suppliers Program, which would ensure that the university is sourcing its apparel from factories operating under decent conditions, rather than profiting from sweatshops, poverty wages, and child labor. Harvard’s intransigence on this issue adversely affects people all over the world.

As a member of the Workers Rights Consortium, Harvard claims to adhere to a basic framework of values in its labor practices. But these are poorly defined and all too nebulous. They include the intangible commitment to “honesty and integrity in all dealings,” and an obligatory “respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others.” But these promises didn’t protect Saintely Paul, a janitor in William James, from being fired unjustly after fainting on the job. Harvard rehired him with full back pay only after a cooperative effort by workers, the union, and students made Paul and his case publicly visible.

What the Harvard community needs—and what we ought to be demanding of our administrators—is a systematic commitment to the rights of its workers. It is imperative that the University adopt a campus labor code of conduct if workers are to be respected in the most complete and consistent manner possible, irrespective of a worker’s visibility to students.

In conversations with SLAM activists, former University President Lawrence H. Summers and General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 refused to commit to this kind of framework, arguing that the resulting loss of flexibility would negatively impact the University’s financial interests. Students need to take a stand and refuse to accept this attitude on our campus.

Over 700 College students supported the janitors in their fight for a wage that would reflect the area’s cost of living. And over 1150 filled out comment cards last spring demanding that dining hall workers be treated fairly in their June 2006 contract negotiations. By standing with Paul they showed solidarity with campus workers, and helped compel the administration to give him back his job.

Harvard’s administration and its students have already acknowledged responsibility for the impact of our consumption, investment, and contracting policies. From fair trade to divestment, from a living wage to a sustainable Allston, there is a tradition and a belief that Harvard should not allow financial strategies to undermine human rights or basic dignity. As interim University President Derek C. Bok himself noted just last week at a student forum, “Universities are simply not a business. Their central focus is not profit and loss.”

Students have shown themselves ready and able to take an ethical stand when they see individual injustices happening around them. But that is not enough. This outrage must be channeled into a sustained demand for the creation of a campus labor code of conduct. Unless this happens, our collective aspiration to social justice will ring hollow in the ears of generations of Harvard workers to come.

Rosa M. Norton ’08, The Crimson’s director of public service, is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. Jose G. Olivarez ’10 lives in Mower Hall. Jessica G. Ranucci ’10 lives in Holworthy Hall. They are members of Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM).