North Face tents were assembled in the Yard. Protesters congregated around the tents, milling among them. And by 9 p.m. on April 18, 2001, 52 Harvard students had settled comfortably into their occupation of Massachusetts Hall.Nearly 100 supporters had gathered just outside for a candlelight vigil. A brunette with glasses leaned out the second-story window of Mass. Hall, fist clenched, jaw set. Next to her, a boy balanced his laptop precariously on the windowsill.“1,000+ Harvard Workers Live in Poverty,” proclaimed a poster taped to the wall next to them. The word “Veritas” was written repeatedly around the phrase, a border framing it. Another one, more official, was pasted below the window, the words written in red and black block letters: “Living Wage Sit-in.”
In February 1999, Harvard’s Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) had launched a four-month living wage campaign for Harvard employees. Its members based their demands on a distinction between the federal minimum wage ($5.15 per hour at the time) and a wage considered “livable” in a specific city of residence (then set in Cambridge at $10.25 per hour, plus benefits and adjustable for inflation). A report released by Harvard on Feb. 20, meant to stymie any outcry, revealed that only 2.7 percent of Harvard’s “regular employees”—those who worked more than 17.5 hours a week—made less than $10 an hour.The report had the opposite effect. Supporters of PSLM’s campaign latched onto the data showing that 49 percent of Harvard’s “casual employees,” its part-time or temporary workers, made less than $10 an hour, often with no benefits. They also called into question Harvard’s increasing reliance on outsourced, subcontracted workers, who were not included in the data.Throughout the winter of 2000 the Living Wage Campaign continued to gain steam, bolstered by the support of prominent faculty, such as then-Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry L. Gates Jr., and then-Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74. By April, then President Neil R. Rudenstine promised to assemble an Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies.Yet, 13 months later, PSLM was less than satisfied with the Committee’s results. It recommended against increasing wages for Harvard’s workers, instead promoting the expansion of free education programs and the official launch of Harvard’s Bridge to Learning and Literacy.
To PSLM members, this was not enough. “Harvard needed to pay its workers a living wage given the enormous disparity of the wealth of Harvard, the very princely conditions that we all lived in, while our dining hall workers, our janitors ... were being paid so-called market rates—which are poverty rates.” says Elfenbein.“We said Harvard can afford to—and it should—fulfill its obligation as the largest employer in Cambridge,” she adds.After meeting with administrators throughout the 2000-2001 school year, PSLM decided its tactics needed to change. The group published its platform on its website, demanding a “living wage with benefits for all Harvard workers, whether directly-employed or hired through outside firms.”
The PSLM members, precursor to today’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), had slipped into Massachusetts Hall earlier that day, at 1:30 p.m., through the basement of Matthews. Some had grasped their laptops. Others carted bags of granola and tanks of water. Once inside, they linked arms, chanted slogans, and read testimony gathered from Harvard workers.“This is not a decision that was made lightly, by any stretch,” says Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04, a former Crimson columnist and a member of PSLM at the time. The students affiliated with PSLM had hosted rallies; they had passed around petitions; they had lobbied for over four years, since the organization’s founding in 1997, in support of a “living wage” for Harvard’s workers. “A sit-in,” Elfenbein acknowledges, “is a pretty major scaling-up of tactics.” The Mass. Hall sit-in would last 21 days, garner the attention of CNN and The New York Times, and spark campus-wide debate: centered, at least among the students, more on the methods of radical activism than on its goals. It was novel in its achievements, improving wages and benefits for Harvard’s lowest-paid workers, though it was not the first occupation of Harvard property by students; nor, clearly, would it be the last.The three-week sit-in, while fundamental to the platform, was not its only manifestation on campus. Nearly 100 people set up tents in Harvard Yard. The campaign organized daily pickets and rallies, which drew up to 2,000 people. The campaign received impromptu messages from U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.Some Harvard employees became involved: one dining hall employee in Adams House, according to Elfenbein, coordinated the food effort for the PSLM sitters-in, so that HUDS food was brought to them daily by dining hall workers.In a contemporaneous piece in the L.A. Times, PSLM member Benjamin L. McKean ’04 discussed the irony of strategizing on behalf of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers within “the plush trappings of Ivy aristocracy.”“We sleep on expensive rugs, and strategize in antique chairs,” wrote McKean. “Our meetings take place amid 18th century paintings and 19th century prints.”
President Neil R. Rudenstine, who had not returned to his Mass. Hall office since the start of the sit-in, arrived one day, as Elfenbein says, “to visit us and talk to us, and ask us to leave.”“That was painful,” she says. “Neil Rudenstine was personally a very nice man, and from a working class background—he was personally a very sympathetic guy.” She also acknowledges that PSLM was much more critical of the Harvard Corporation than of Rudenstine, who she says probably didn’t have as much power in this situation.By May 8, 2001, PSLM had not yet achieved its specific demands—but Rudenstine had agreed to establish another committee, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting. It was enough to end the sit-in. This time, the Katz Committee, as it came to be known, would be made up of students, faculty, and workers in addition to Harvard administrators. It was meant to examine “issues related to the economic welfare of lower-paid employees at Harvard,” according to the University’s Labor Relations website.The Katz Committee did recommend, in December 2001, that Harvard establish a living wage for its workers, and promoted the implementation of a Wage and Benefit Parity Policy to ensure that contracted workers receive total compensation comparable to that offered to University employees. “We couldn’t have achieved what we did,” says Elfenbein, “without the sit-in and the tent city in Harvard Yard.”Elfenbein recalls being impressed with the level of support from students, faculty, and the larger Cambridge community. Yet, like the ongoing protests today, there was hardly an on-campus consensus: some objected to the goals, many others to the tactics, while one Crimson editor diagnosed a “wall of cynicism” keeping Harvard students apathetic throughout the sit-in. In a Boston Globe op-ed, Professor Gregory N. Mankiw called the protesters “laudable in their intentions but deficient in their analysis,” claiming that the passage of a living wage would mean that fewer workers would be hired.On June 5, an editorial by the Crimson editorial staff stated its support of a living wage for Harvard’s workers, but decried the sit-in as “a blatant disruption of University life.”Elfenbein agrees that many students felt uncomfortable with the methods employed by PSLM. She says that she wasn’t quite comfortable with them either.“It’s a tactic that is inherently disruptive,” she says. “That is what lends it its effectiveness—but it is also inevitably a polarizing tactic as well.”Nevertheless, Elfenbein objects to the characterization of the sit-in as “anti-scholarly,” “un-American,” and “illiberal,” rhetoric that, according to her, became common discourse at the time.“Our demands were not an idle whim,” she says. “They were demands that had an entire community of support on its side.”