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Harvard's Heroes

May 3, 2001


Harvard's Heroes


You want heroes? Take a peek inside Massachusetts Hall.

The temperature in Cambridge hovered around 90 yesterday as the "living-wage" sit-in at Harvard passed the two-week mark. The 30 or so students who continued to occupy Massachusetts Hall, and the dozens of students who have set up a tent city in Harvard Yard, outside the hall, were understandably weary.

But they remained upbeat, sustained by the intense belief that their school should not be contributing to the erosion of pay and benefits that has plagued low-wage workers in the U.S. for the past couple of decades.

"It's a classic nonviolent protest," said Prof. Marshall Ganz of Harvard, who spent many years as an organizer for the civil rights movement and the farm workers' union. He praised the students for the tenacity and discipline they've shown in rallying support for their living- wage campaign.

"Economic justice as a real core issue has been a long time coming," he said.

The bottom line for the students is that all workers should be paid a wage that covers the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their families. And they have vowed to continue protesting until Harvard meets that minimum threshold.

"I don't feel right going home at night knowing that the people cleaning up after us and preparing our food aren't getting paid enough to take care of their families," said Jenny Foster, a divinity student who is active in the living-wage campaign but is not one of those sitting in.

The students want Harvard to establish a living wage of $10.25 an hour as the minimum that could be paid to employees, whether they work directly for the university or for contractors hired by Harvard.

One of the many encouraging elements of the campaign is its cross- cultural aspect. The students, some from very privileged backgrounds, have gone to the mat on behalf of janitors, dining hall employees and others who grew up poor and are still struggling. Many of the workers are immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America.

"I grew up in the coal fields of northern Appalachia," said Danny Meagher, a part-time campus museum guard who is 44 years old, married and has three children. Mr. Meagher's wife works, so his family is not poverty-stricken. But he makes only $9.48 an hour and some of his colleagues make less than that. He appreciates the sustained effort of the protesters.

"These students have chosen to stand up and take what I consider to be an incredible moral stand on behalf of people whose backgrounds are different from theirs," he said. "I think that's a fine thing. To me, they're a true reflection of what the university claims to be about. Harvard should be proud of them."

We have become accustomed in the era of globalization and the triumph of the markets to ignore such concepts as economic justice and fairness. Harvard officials do not argue that their lowest-paid workers are being paid what they're worth. They say they have an obligation, when considering the pay of these workers, to remain in step with the surrounding market. Why that should be so is not at all clear. If some company down the street pays its security guards less than a subsistence wage, why is Harvard, the wealthiest university in the nation, obligated to follow suit?

"They can use all kinds of market justifications, but that doesn't make it right," said Amy Offner, a member of the living-wage campaign. "The market doesn't have a lot to do with morality. It doesn't have a lot to do with justice. All it does is crank out numbers, and that doesn't tell us how we should treat each other, or how we ought to live."

However this plays out, the protesters have provided a great service by insisting that we no longer avert our eyes to the continuing assault on the living standards of working men and women, even at a great institution like Harvard.

John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., was correct when he said yesterday that the issues of low- wage workers are "everybody's issues." The sit-in at Harvard, he said, highlights "the principle that workers who give their all every day should not be rewarded with poverty wages."

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