After twenty-one days, living wage activists have emerged victorious. Here’s why their sit-in not only shook the campus, but signaled an important win for progressives across the country who are fighting globalization battles on the home front.
Published on ZNet.
Just a month ago Harvard administrators considered the case of living wages permanently closed. A report they commissioned last year recommended, conveniently enough, against raising the pay of many janitors and dining hall workers above poverty levels, promoting instead a small expansion of benefits. University President Neil Rudenstine saw no need for further discussion. So when more than forty students stormed the offices in Massachusetts Hall with a demand that all university workers receive $10.25 an hour plus health insurance, his response amounted to a genteel version of “we will not negotiate with terrorists.”
All that has changed. On Tuesday, May 8, the activists, having extracted impressive concessions from the administration, exited the building to greet hundreds of cheering allies. Their three-week occupation drew supporters from throughout the Boston community, attracted national media attention to the plight of those exploited by the world’s richest university, and put discussion of economic injustice at the center of campus life.
In the end Harvard agreed to a settlement that, while allowing it to avoid total capitulation, substantively yields to the student demands. The University is instituting a moratorium on sub-contracting and it will immediately address the issue of health care benefits. Additionally, Harvard has committed itself to expedite contract negotiations with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE, Local 26) and with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, Local 254). Harvard is willing to make pay increases for custodians that result from these negotiations retroactive — raises will take effect as if they were granted to coincide with the end of the sit-in.
The agreement does not immediately set a single living wage minimum for all workers. Instead, a faculty-led committee with strong worker and student representation will collectively determine and recommend a final salary. This gives Harvard some wiggle room. But, as Amy Offner, a leading activist in the campaign, explains, “It’s an agreement that will implement a living wage in six months to a year if it’s done right — and we’re going to make sure it’s done right.”
The campaign certainly has the power to do so. The sit-in won because it mobilized support from well beyond its student activist core. Workers staged massive rallies, community members came to sleep out in the imposing tent city that sprouted in Harvard Yard, and newly energized students committed themselves in ways normally unthinkable at semester’s end. “Once it got going,” Offner says, “people came out of the woodwork to put in fifteen-hour days in support of the campaign.”
By showcasing the growing push for Living Wages nationally, the sit-in highlighted an important example of how the forces combating corporate globalization at major trade summits can fuel campaigns to win the same fight at the local level. Indeed, it is the type of coalition that formed around the Living Wage issue that gives the Harvard protest a wider significance from a social movement perspective. The sit-in demonstrated the vitality of a unique student-labor alliance that has formed in past years.
Unions have nurtured connections with student activists as part of their resurgence under the national leadership of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Through the Organizing Institute, the AFL-CIO has worked to recruit a new generation of organizers, and has enlisted thousands of student activists and young workers in “Union Summer” internships since 1996. UNITE, the garment workers’ union, invested heavily in the fledgling anti-sweatshop crusade, providing institutional support which helped that movement explode to prominence.
Labor’s investment has paid off most visibly in a wave of building occupations that have taken place on campuses. Over the past two years, anti-sweatshop campaigns have produced sit-ins at the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa, SUNY-Albany, the University of Wisconsin, Wesleyan, and the University of Kentucky. Last year, a seventeen-day building occupation at Johns Hopkins addressing janitor’s wages foreshadowed Harvard students’ takeover of Massachusetts Hall.
The Harvard Living Wage campaign was initiated by a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), an organization that was a clear product of the Labor movement’s outreach. Several of the members that founded the group in 1997, as well as three of the students inside the administrative offices during the sit-in, were Union Summer alumni.
While Harvard represents one of the first major battles around this issue that was based on student mobilization, unions have long been at the fore of the rapidly growing Living Wage movement. A first major victory took place in Baltimore in 1994, where community and labor activists won a wage ordinance mandating higher pay for low-wage workers under public contracts. Since then, over fifty Living Wage measures have been adopted in cities across the country. Currently progressive coalitions are fighting for ordinances in seventy-five additional cities.
Like with their outreach to students, support for Living Wage struggles is part of the revitalized Labor movement’s strategy to connect with a larger progressive community. Bruce Nissen, Program Director of the Center for Labor Research at Florida International University and a veteran of several Living Wage battles, argues: “For the national AFL-CIO, this is part of building a much stronger union presence in the community — creating a labor movement that benefits the general welfare.”
That’s why during the Harvard sit-in the AFL-CIO sent in top retainers to help broker the deal with the administration, why President John Sweeney stood among the VIPs present at a huge rally last week, and why Labor leaders returned to campus to cordially hold the door for protesters leaving Massachusetts Hall.
The enthusiasm at the top levels of Labor organization only hints at the tireless investment of local unions in community-based drives. In the case of Harvard, dozens of campus workers spoke at demonstrations and gave testimonials to the press. Members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE, Local 26) vowed publicly that they would not accept any settlement that included disciplinary censure of the students.
Although Living Wage measures initially targeted local governments, new laws seek to affect a wide range of sub-contractors, as well as businesses receiving tax abatements. The student actions at Johns Hopkins and Harvard were unique in expanding the fight to take on individual private employers. Harvard, sitting atop a massive endowment of almost $20 billion, proved a particularly good target: students effectively attracted media by contrasting the university’s privileged mystique with its miserly treatment of low-paid workers.
Similar to the way in which globalization protests have sparked unlikely “red-green” alliances between workers and environmentalists, the Living Wage campaigns have pulled together impressive coalitions on the domestic scene. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Coalition for the Homeless led the wage fight in Chicago; hotel workers, Greens, and renters’ rights activists united in Santa Monica; interfaith groups, Gray Panthers, social service providers, and third party advocates have joined elsewhere.
Some notable Living Wage campaigns have started using civil disobedience and mass action tactics to leverage political change. In addition to the university sit-ins, the Chicago campaign mobilized impressive crowds of 15,000 for its marches. And HERE workers were arrested after blocking traffic in actions that were a part of the Santa Monica campaign.
The sit-in at Harvard will help to make campuses leading locations for the expansion of the Living Wage movement. Student-labor alliances have only strengthened after mass demonstrations like Seattle, where the two constituencies have taken to the streets together. The interaction of these groups could not be more significant, especially for globalization activists seeking to ground themselves in local campaigns.
In large part, the success of the protests at large trade summits can be measured by the extent to which people who are energized and inspired by the large-scale events commit to combating abuses of corporate power taking place “in their own back yards.” Organizers working to encourage action around such issues as sweatshops, organic farming, welfare reform, prison expansion, and demilitarization are all striving to make the connection between community and international affairs.
The Living Wage is another example of an issue making that connection, and it is a crucial one. Students publicizing the drastic inequalities present on their increasingly corporate campuses go far in asserting that poverty wages are unacceptable — at home or abroad. Universities subcontracting maintenance and security jobs to low-paying firms respond to the same impulse that motivates the Gap to have clothing made in Salvadoran sweatshops. Confronting this injustice, the growing Living Wage movement forms a vigorous part of the grassroots resistance to globalization’s “race to the bottom,” wherein CEO salaries skyrocket while those at the bottom of the labor market struggle to survive.
Taken as a whole, the wage measures that have already been passed represent some of the most tangible progressive gains of the past decade. The campaigns are at once pragmatic — concretely benefiting the working poor — and visionary — suggesting what Left coalitions can accomplish as groups begin to unite and force change.
It wasn’t an enlightened epiphany that made university officials see the justice of paying its workers decent wages. It was power. The students’ civil disobedience forced a reconsideration of the Living Wage issue, and the community’s amazing solidarity made putty of the administration’s once inflexible bargaining position.
One thing is sure: the lesson won’t be lost on students at other campuses who, along with community and labor allies, will be looking to turn one successful sit-in into a persistent challenge to economic injustice.