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Over the past week many of Harvard’s undergraduate organizations have been asked to participate in a boycott of The Upper Crust pizza chain over allegations made in court that claim that the pizza chain mistreats its workers. This boycott has been organized by two Harvard Law School student groups, the Harvard Immigration Project and the Labor and Employment Action Project. The Upper Crust, a Boston-wide chain that was founded in 2001, has faced allegations of employing illegal immigrants and unfair treatment of workers for some time, charges that have been vehemently denied by the company’s management. In 2009, the company was ordered by the Department of Labor to pay some $340,000 in unpaid compensation.
Now, after a new set of lawsuits alleging labor abuses were filed in December 2010, the Department of Labor has decided to open a second investigation into employment practices. Following on from this, HLS students from HIP and LEAP have chosen to take the matter into their own hands, and would like all of Harvard’s community to do the same. Claire Valentin, the HLS president of HIP, stated in an email to The Crimson that the boycott was started in response to the Department of Labor’s 2009 order. The Vice President of Advocacy of LEAP has said that the boycott will not cease their calls for a boycott until the company proves it is in compliance with labor laws. So far, the HLS groups claim that their appeal has achieved positive responses from many undergraduate organizations, some of who make up the forty groups who have reportedly signed onto a letter to be delivered to the restaurant chain.
It should be seen as a good thing that many people within Harvard University have become involved with workers’ rights in the local community. If it should prove any catalyst for Harvard’s undergraduates to become active defenders of the rights of workers—local or not—and to be informed of their situations, then we believe that this initiative will have long-lasting benefits. With the jobs of so many people in Harvard Square and the wider Cambridge area either directly or indirectly dependent on the Harvard community, we can be better Cambridge citizens by remaining abreast of such developments.
That said, we do not feel that a boycott is the best approach in this particular case or necessarily warranted. As a rule, the call for a boycott should be made with great caution and only after lengthy deliberation. Boycotts of a company or product do, by their nature, bring devastating economic consequences to those they target if they are successful. In the case of The Upper Crust, it is not only the founder—Jordan Tobins—who will suffer but also all of the business’ employees. In the case that the HLS student’s boycott should prove a popular cause, then the livelihoods of those very workers whom the boycott originally sought to protect will suffer, potentially seriously. Ideological opposition to labor violation allegations made in court must not trump practical considerations of what is in these employees’ real best interest.
Considering this, it is especially important to have a preponderance of evidence suggesting that labor abuses have taken place and are continuing before launching a call for a boycott. While it is significant that the Department of Labor has launched a new investigation into The Upper Crust’s labor practices, there is still no hard evidence that these practices are continuing. Nor is there a suggestion that these abuses are taking place at the company’s Harvard Square restaurant. For these reasons, it would seem wise not to call yet for a boycott.
This is not to chastise the HLS students for bringing this issue to light in the way that they have. We only disagree with the action which they gone on to recommend. Overall, the move at an individual, activist level should be viewed as a positive step that we might all try to fork out more time for in the future.
This boycott may not be in the best interests of The Upper Crusts’ employees or the local community, but we do hope that it might at least foster more dialogue on an important issue for the Harvard student body.
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