While HBS students were preparing for exams or for their spring break during the past three weeks, they were largely unaware of the large-scale protests occurring in Harvard Yard, and more specifically, inside the office of University President Neil Rudenstine.
The HBS campus was entirely unaffected by the protest, in which 52 members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) stormed Massachusetts Hall on April 18 and conducted a sit-in in the President’s office suite until the situation was resolved, three weeks after it began. The students were demanding that the University institute a “living wage” of at least $10.25 per hour for all University employees.
Over the course of three weeks, Mass. Hall and Harvard Yard became one large protest area, as sympathetic students pitched tents in Harvard Yard to remain near the protesters inside. The Yard was the site of daily rallies, which included chants, large signs and electronic bullhorns. The largest rally on May 1 brought 1,100 people to the Yard to hear John Sweeney, the President of the AFL-CIO.
On Tuesday, May 8, after a long night of negotiations with union mediators, administrators and representatives of the PSLM, the students agreed to end their protest. The University has now created a committee made up of 11 faculty members, two administrators, three unionized workers, two undergrads and two graduate students to examine labor issues at Harvard.
The committee will examine outsourcing and benefits policies, and a living wage. Lawrence Katz, Professor of Economics, will chair the committee, which will report to the new president, Lawrence Summers, by December. Its recommendations will be non-binding. No HBS faculty members have been selected for the committee; the graduate students have not yet been chosen, but they will likely come from the Kennedy School or the Divinity School, whose students were active in the protests.
Upon leaving Mass. Hall, the protesters held a two-hour rally. They were greeted with a phone call from Sen. Kennedy. “To anyone who believes that student leadership is a relic of the past, I say come to Mass. Hall,” he said. “It’s your victory and you deserve it.”
The PSLM is a group made up primarily of Harvard undergraduate students, some of whom had received civil disobedience training from national union organizations and other professional protest groups. When they stormed Mass. Hall, they were prepared-they brought backpacks of dry food, bread and water containers with the expectation of being there for several days. Unlike the sit-ins of old, the University allowed the protesters to receive pizzas and cartons of fresh fruit from their supporters. Harvard police also delivered sandwiches and provided the protesters with wash basins, towels and deodorant, since no shower facilities were available to them.
The support and attention the PSLM students received were impressive. Within two days, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) paid them a visit to voice his support, followed by calls of support from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sweeney. The group also received visits from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and the entire Cambridge City Council, which passed a resolution in support of the protesters.
In addition, the protest was the topic of several national and international news stories, covered in the news and op-ed pages of The New York Times, on most major television networks, and on several political talk shows. The most notable voice of support came from New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who described the students as “Harvard’s Heroes.” He rejected the University’s argument that the living wage demanded by the PSLM would be out of step with the surrounding market. “If some company down the street pays its security guards less than a subsistence wage,” Herbert wrote, “why is Harvard, the wealthiest university in the nation, obligated to follow suit?”
The University’s $19 billion endowment fund was a focal point of the protest, with one protest poster noting that $19 billion is the equivalent of 927,000 workers’ annual salaries at the `living wage’, which was established in 1999 by the Cambridge City Council.
Last year, an ad-hoc Presidential committee examined wage and beifit issues. They determined that only 400 of Harvard’s regular workers make less than $10/hr., and all of them are represented by unions. The committee recommended, and Harvard agreed, to expand literacy and English as a Second Language training for workers, and to provide subsidized health insurance for all service employees who work more than 16 hours per week.
On the HBS campus across the river from the action, there was no mention of the controversy-no students wearing buttons, no signs hanging from dorm windows. Students were much more concerned with summer internships and the upcoming Newport Ball. “I didn’t even know about the protests until I went home to visit my parents for Spring Break,” said Sally Aaron, NH. “My father knew more about what was going on than I did.”
Numerous HBS professors were also contacted for this story, and none were interested in expressing their opinion publicly.
Mardie Oakes, NH, said “It’s depressing that we are so far removed from what’s happening on the other side of campus”.