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This Is Why We Occupy

By Lucy O'Leary

History shows that those in power often need a push in the right direction. Harvard’s 2001 Living Wage Campaign, culminating in a tent city in the Yard (which, incidentally, remained open to the public), brought justice for workers across campus. As a student involved in organizing Occupy Harvard, I’ve been frustrated that while there are many legitimate critiques to make about both the broader Occupy movement and its Harvard manifestation, most of the arguments I hear fundamentally miss the mark.

I was disturbed to see campus support for Alexandra Petri’s ’10 critique of Occupy Harvard, which accused student activists of wasting time in smelly tents when they could be studying—what she claims we should do to remedy injustice in the world. If more students understood the issues Occupy Harvard has raised, they might be less inclined to write off its efforts as the ignorant whining of a few deviant ingrates.

I repeatedly hear arguments that Harvard’s generous financial aid policy invalidates our presence. While I personally benefit from this policy and am deeply grateful for the opportunity to study here, this does not preclude my criticism of Harvard’s lack of fiscal transparency. (Nonetheless, many graduate students suffer excessive loan burdens, a major concern of the national Occupy movement.) It saddens me that students are willing to accept the argument that the “greater good” of needs-blind admission justifies a swath of unethical endowment investments, including sweatshop hotels here in America. Months ago, members of the Student Labor Action Movement—many of whom helped organize Occupy Harvard—met with Robert D. Reischauer ’63, chairman of the Harvard Corporation, to discuss Harvard’s investments in HEI Hotels and Resorts. HEI profits through a variety of exploitative practices, including union busting, speedups, and slashes to wages and healthcare (Brown already declared it won’t reinvest). When we raised critiques about Harvard’s lack of transparency, Reischauer said that if Harvard were to agree to publicly disclose its investments, students would take issue with many other items in its portfolio.

This strengthens our call for dialogue on campus about the relationship between Harvard’s dual missions of providing students a quality education and serving as a positive force in the world. A commitment to socially responsible investment by the University would benefit people all across the globe whose lives are directly impacted by the practices Harvard condones with its current investment policies.

Students argue we are too privileged to claim to represent the 99 percent. Our privileged status and proximity to power are all the more reason to speak out against injustice and, in fact, make it imperative that we do so. Critics accused another former Harvard student, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, of being a class traitor for supporting New Deal social programs and regulation of big business.

Students’ main grievance, however, revolves around the lockdown of the Yard. Unfortunately, many have been unable to disentangle the importance of the Occupy Harvard protest from the hassle of the gate closure. It’s worth pointing out that the relatively minor inconvenience of having to flash one’s ID at the gate has resulted in important gains for hundreds of workers at Harvard.

With blatant disrespect for custodians’ concerns, Petri joked we’d complain even if our janitors made $300,000 a year. That salary is near that of the top one percent of income earners in the US—hardly what’s at stake when workers spend months in bargaining over raises of eleven cents per hour.

I attended two sessions of the custodians’ contract negotiations and was struck by their resonance with Occupy’s struggle for economic justice. In response to management’s statement concerning the impact of the economic crisis on negotiations, one worker said, “The economy may not be good, but don’t tell us how bad it is. We should be telling you that. Let us hear you tell your children that you can’t pay for their medicine or schoolbooks. We the custodians should not have to bear the burden of the economy alone.” He was negotiating with a team that represents individuals making $8.4 million dollars per year.

These wage talks came after the University had caved on one of the custodians’ key demands—parity in benefits between direct and subcontracted employees. Harvard’s former policy arbitrarily denied tuition assistance and childcare benefits to hundreds of subcontracted workers. During the security guards’ contract fight, SLAM met with Bill Murphy, Harvard’s Director of Labor Relations, regarding this issue. Murphy said the provision of such benefits was not under Harvard’s purview—that we should go talk to Securitas, one of the contractors, and urge them to provide these vital benefits. With this contract settlement, Harvard has made a surprising turnaround. Not only did custodians win parity, they won it for all campus employees, including security guards and food service workers.

This huge victory for workers was not possible without the occupation. But the struggle is just beginning. We have taken action because our concerns have not been addressed through formal channels and because we value our communities, both local and global. Students should abandon superficial discourse around Occupy Harvard and think more deeply about the values motivating these efforts—inconvenient though it may be.

Lucy O’Leary ’12 is a social studies concentrator living in the Dudley Co-op and a member of SLAM.

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