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Opinion

A message to Occupy from the 99%: Real change requires more than demands

I returned from fieldwork in Africa to find Occupy Harvard holding the Yard hostage. As part of the 99% I have a message for the Occupy movement: OWS must work on how to build a better world, not just demand that others do it.

By Luke Glowacki / December 13, 2011

OCCUPY PORTS: Christy Wong, of San Jose, chants at police officers after blocking an entrance to the Port of Oakland, Dec. 12, 2011, in Oakland, Calif. Occupy Wall Street protesters along the West Coast joined an effort Monday to blockade some of the nation's busiest docks, with the idea that if they cut off the ports, they cut into corporate profits.

AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach

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Cambridge, Mass.

I recently returned from anthropological fieldwork in Africa to find Harvard Occupied and a tent city erected in the Yard.

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I would like to think I am a member of the 99% the Occupy movement is about. Both of my parents were laid off in this economic downturn. My father spent the year before his unemployment training the people who would offshore his job. My 58-year-old mother had no health insurance for two years; the care she received was cobbled together from doctors willing to accept payments of $10 a month. This is not the America they taught me to believe in.

But effecting real change requires that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) do more than demand debt relief, diversity, fair contracts, and justice. It requires hard, clear-headed thinking. It requires views nuanced enough to make policy recommendations. It requires Occupy Harvard being informed enough to tell Harvard President Drew Faust and the Harvard Management Corporation how to write socially just, yet fiscally responsible, policy.

The first concrete complaint in Occupy Harvard’s statement of principles is the 180:1 pay difference between the head of investments of Harvard Management Corporation and the lowest-paid custodial staff. This difference strikes me as grossly large but not necessarily unjust. After all, one of them manages a $30 billion endowment and the other cleans classrooms. Should job duties and skill be tied to pay? Do you decrease the executive’s wage or increase the salary of the lowest-paid employees? What ratio would make it “just,” and how do you determine this?

It is not enough to say Harvard should pay custodians fair wages without discussing contract details. In an open message, Occupy Harvard writes, “The administration has claimed that its workers are treated fairly, but we all know our custodial workers are reasonable people – they wouldn’t be complaining if they were treated properly.” This is not an argument. It does not inform. There are no figures for current wages and benefits, comparisons to regional and national averages, or the cost of living in Boston. And yet the public is supposed to concede that their prior contract was unjust.

The Occupy movement is also about global justice. I have lived on two continents with people surviving on less than a dollar a day. I have seen what no access to health care looks like; I know what happens to the body when food is gone. The children cry until they are too empty to cry anymore. It makes you sick.

But feeling sick is not a platform. Talking about how sick you feel is not a policy prescription.

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