Striking Zealotry

“What’s that I hear now? It’s the sound of self-important students”

The proletariat’s chains are crumbling; the scales of false consciousness have fallen—make no mistake, the workers of the world are uniting and Harvard had better heed the rumblings of revolution. On the heels of a student hunger strike, Harvard’s outsourced security guards have authorized a strike against their employer, AlliedBarton, and this is only the start. As one hospitalized hunger striker put it, “The struggle continues and the actions will escalate.”

Yet despite all the bold proclamations, collective shouting, and drum-banging, last week’s hunger strike ended with a whimper: The University restated its existing position on wage parity, and agreed to a meaningless meeting with the Stand for Security campaign (SfS). This hardly lives up to the activists’ impossibly self-important initial vow to “physically manifest the severity of the treatment received by security officers,” but they are undeterred; further aggressive action is whole-heartedly supported by SfS. “We’re 100 percent behind whatever the guards decide to do,” according to Alyssa M. Aguilera ’08-’09, a member the campaign.

Given Harvard’s largely apathetic, resume-driven environment, such earnest passion is refreshing. Undoubtedly, the strikers endured substantial physical and psychological stress, and it would be crass to belittle their suffering. But zealotry is not, in and of itself, admirable, nor does martyrdom make a cause more justified; however passionate, the strikers’ actions reflect a blinkered ideological perspective and a myopic, distorted sense of priorities.

The exact cause of the hunger strike is shrouded in the soft haze of progressive chants—“rah, rah, don’t pay workers trash”—and unsubstantiated allegations. Without offering any concrete evidence, the campaign has accused AlliedBarton of “a rash of [retaliatory] terminations,” “de facto union busting,” and other such nefarious deeds. Other SfS complaints include the security guards’ “low morale” and “stress” resulting from the company’s “aggressive” negotiating tactics. SfS’s response? Bringing protesters to meetings and staging a hunger strike—some might consider these “aggressive” negotiating tactics.

At the start of the strike, activists claimed that problem was the unequal wages paid to Harvard’s in-house guards and AlliedBarton employees, which would violate the 2001 Katz report on wage parity. But according to SfS, the pay difference between newly hired in-house guards and outsourced guards is only 19 cents an hour, and the overall parity has been repeatedly confirmed by independent audits (including a recent study).

Recently, this grievance has morphed into something marginally more sensible: The assertion that workers are “basically getting parity to crappy wages.” But by what standard is more than double the minimum wage “crappy?” The campaign cherry-picks comparisons with the some of the U.S.’s highest-paid security guards (including Stanford’s over $20 an hour starting salary) and asserts that Harvard is paying below the “market rate.” This sample set hardly proves that current wages are sub-standard—after all, many local security guards are paid substantially less than the University’s employees.

Another favored tactic has been to frame the hunger strike as the conclusion of an undefined and amorphous, but very, very long struggle. In the words of one supporter, the strike is “the final resort in a FIFTEEN YEAR (mostly losing) battle against an unconcerned administration.” This epic figure, however, is a deceptive slight of hand that bears no relation to events in Cambridge; simply put, the continuous 15-year struggle never occurred. SfS’s own timeline says that students “began to call [the University’s] policy into question” only in 1998, and it makes no note of significant struggles between then and 1992.

SfS’s willingness to starve, given no extraordinary cause, reflects an unhealthy detachment from reality. $12.67 per hour, not to mention a benefits package, is well above Cambridge’s living wage ordinance, and it’s neither immoral nor indecent. One can always wish to earn more, but there’s no such thing as a “moral” wage level; the amount you are paid has no relation to your ethical value. If $12.67 is unfair because guards are “worth” more, does $15 an hour (SfS’s goal) capture the guards’ human value? Of course not, but that is the logic of demanding a “moral” wage.

Moreover, as noted earlier, Harvard already pays its employees substantially more than many other local businesses. Why not campaign on behalf of those workers? There’s no reason why employees at Harvard—defined by the arbitrary fact that the University pays their wages—are more needy than other people (in fact, thanks to the Living Wage campaign, they are better off than most workers). Better yet, activists could encourage the University to use its not inconsiderable political muscle to lobby for free trade. Relative to the suffering of Brazilian peasant farmers, workers at Harvard—be they in-house or outsourced—have nothing to complain about.

Ultimately, the hunger strike has only exacerbated the marginalization, for better or for worse, of the political activism at Harvard. Using radical methods for routine negotiations not only misdirects the activists’ time and energy, but it also alienates the moderate liberal majority on campus. Over DemsTalk and other public forums, many students scorned the strike while voicing support for the protesters’ ultimate goals. In fact, an (admittedly unscientific) poll of more than 800 students found that over 70 percent “do not support this particular tactic [of a hunger strike] as appropriate.”

But when the revolution comes, although the cadre of activists will be few in number, at least they’ll have well-rehearsed chants ready.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears regularly.