Harvard sit-in asks for a 'living wage'

The picketers were a loud crowd, if not a huge one, circling around the shrubs in front of Harvard University's Massachusetts Hall. "Harvard, Harvard, you've got cash, why do you pay your workers trash?"

Inside the 18th-century brick building on the edge of Harvard Yard, President Neil Rudenstine and the provost have first-floor offices - and, since last Wednesday, about 40 uninvited guests.

Members of Harvard's Progressive Student Labor Movement made their way in with sleeping bags and stashes of food, prepared to sit it out until administrators agree to negotiate on a "living wage" for all employees. They read out loud their demands, workers' testimonies, and texts by the likes of Henry David Thoreau.

Their primary demand: that the security workers who guard their dorms, the dining-hall staff who cook their meals, and hundreds of others who keep Harvard humming be paid at least $10.25 per hour plus benefits. Harvard officials say they offered education benefits to help workers increase skills after a committee recommended improvements last year. Wage issues, officials say, should be resolved through collective bargaining with unions.

The movement for a "living wage" has touched down at a number of colleges. Last year, students persuaded the president of William and Mary College to form a committee to look at higher pay for hourly employees. For two years, Cambridge, Mass. - where Harvard is the largest private employer - has offered public employees a minimum wage of $10.25 per hour.

Often this activism overlaps with the anti-sweatshop movement. Students are starting to insist that whether someone sews

college apparel abroad or cleans dorms here, he or she deserves to be able to afford at least the basics.

A Harvard faculty member observing the picketers offered his 2 cents, but didn't give his name. He said the increased benefits approved last year were reasonable. Some opponents of a living wage also argue it can deprive low-wage workers of jobs by drawing more-skilled applicants.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it can be heartening to see students willing to take time off from classes to right what they see as an injustice.

Before walking away, the professor threw out a final comment: "These kids just wanted to come out and protest on a nice spring day."

Morning snow had given way to sun, but the motivations of picketers and onlookers seemed deeper. Leah Plunkett, a senior whose brother is sitting in, says many students support the campaign because of personal ties: "Some of the nicest adults I've met at Harvard have been the dining-hall staff. They are quick to go out of their way to help students."

Josh Gardner, also a senior, says it's greedy to pay people low wages when, students estimate, it would cost less than half a percent of the interest on the endowment to increase them. "A lot of security officers work two or three jobs to make ends meet," he says.

One picketer's sign read, "Prestige has no nutritional value." These students know their degree will carry plenty of name-brand value. By recognizing less-visible people behind the Harvard name, they are showing that's not the only value they care about.

E-mail teichers@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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