Hungry For a Cause

What do we want? Perspective! When do we want it? Now!

The hunger strike is a classic protest ultimatum—the gastronomical equivalent of Patrick Henry’s famous cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” At least, so I’d thought until the technique found its milder cousin in the 10 members of the Stand For Security coalition—it was 11 until one withdrew—who are currently refusing all sustenance (except two daily cups of Gatorade) until Harvard complies with their demands. Or until they get really, really hungry and have to stop.

The coalition’s hunger strike—which, according to participants, is distinct from a “death strike” in that none of them are prepared to die for their cause—is a response to some questionable labor practices by Harvard University that may have violated the Wage and Benefits Parity Policy (WBPP) that the University agreed to in 2001. The WBPP requires Harvard to employ workers through private contractors at comparable wages and benefits to those given to, “Harvard employees in the corresponding service sector.”

Most of Harvard’s security guards are supplied by the security conglomerate AlliedBarton and earn wages starting at $12.67 per hour, which is noticeably less than the pay of many other Harvard employees and of security guards at comparable institutions. However, AlliedBarton was still able to pass its Harvard-mandated audit last year, and it’s unclear if the University has actually done anything wrong.

But this murky issue is enough to draw 11 students out of the dining halls and into the Yard to protest the horror of it all. The hunger strike and its entourage, which includes a daily-updated website, an aggressive number of emails, and assorted rallies and vigils, have adopted many of the classic trappings of those glorious 1960s protest movements.

At their rally on Monday, the protestors joined hands to form a giant circle as several megaphone-wielding ringleaders shouted chants that only slightly misrepresented the situation. “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” they cried (the guards actually have a union and Harvard has done nothing to bust it), and “Hey, Harvard, you’ve got cash! Why do you pay your workers trash?” (Harvard doesn’t pay these guards—AlliedBarton does). Meanwhile, other students banged giant water jugs like drums, adding to the fever.

The protestors, who seem to delight in making mountains out of molehills, have one thing right: It sure feels good to have a cause to rally behind. Yet watching college students put their bodies on the line for unionized security guards who make almost twice the minimum wage—and equal to the Cambridge-decreed living wage—it’s hard not to feel as though the real point of the protest is masturbatory. After all, a hunger strike is not just a publicity stunt, but a good way to transform a question of audits and technicalities into something worth sacrifice.

Maybe the protestors are just hungry for an issue. In my English class, we watched a video of the famous 1969 Harvard protests against the Vietnam War. Several of us expressed nostalgic longing for those days. The modern age’s excessive narcissism makes you want to be there, to be part of something greater than yourself.

But today’s students are paralyzed by the impotent sensation of having nothing to fight for. Everything seems either too big (Iraq), too trivial (cage-free eggs), or too intractable (Darfur). In the days of postmodernism, irony, and moral relativism, it’s difficult to find something to latch on to.

In the meantime, those dreaming strikers will stay on in Harvard Yard, bang their drums (or Poland Spring water bottles), and cry out to whomever will listen, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

What they really want is a cause worthy of their battle cry.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Straus Hall.