Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement

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Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement

Living wage campaign

In February 1999, the Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement launched a four-month living wage campaign for Harvard employees. Its members based their demands on a distinction between the federal minimum wage ($5.15 per hour at the time) and a wage considered “livable” in a specific city of residence (then set in Cambridge at $10.25 per hour, plus benefits and adjustable for inflation). A report released by Harvard on Feb. 20, meant to stymie any outcry, revealed that only 2.7 percent of Harvard’s “regular employees”—those who worked more than 17.5 hours a week—made less than $10 an hour.The report had the opposite effect.

Supporters of PSLM’s campaign latched onto the data showing that 49 percent of Harvard’s “casual employees,” its part-time or temporary workers, made less than $10 an hour, often with no benefits. They also called into question Harvard’s increasing reliance on outsourced, subcontracted workers, who were not included in the data. Throughout the winter of 2000 the Harvard Living Wage Campaign continued to gain steam, bolstered by the support of prominent faculty, such as then-Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and then-Fletcher University Professor Cornel West ’74. By April, then President Neil Rudenstine promised to assemble an Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies.Yet, 13 months later, PSLM was less than satisfied with the Committee’s results. It recommended against increasing wages for Harvard’s workers, instead promoting the expansion of free education programs and the official launch of Harvard’s Bridge to Learning and Literacy.

To PSLM members, this was not enough. “Harvard needed to pay its workers a living wage given the enormous disparity of the wealth of Harvard, the very princely conditions that we all lived in, while our dining hall workers, our janitors ... were being paid so-called market rates—which are poverty rates.” says Madeleine Elfenbein. “We said Harvard can afford to—and it should—fulfill its obligation as the largest employer in Cambridge,” she adds.After meeting with administrators throughout the 2000-2001 school year, PSLM decided its tactics needed to change. The group published its platform on its website, demanding a “living wage with benefits for all Harvard workers, whether directly-employed or hired through outside firms.”

The PSLM members, precursor to today’s Student Labor Action Movement, had slipped into Massachusetts Hall earlier that day, at 1:30 p.m., through the basement of Matthews. Some had grasped their laptops. Others carted bags of granola and tanks of water. Once inside, they linked arms, chanted slogans, and read testimony gathered from Harvard workers.“This is not a decision that was made lightly, by any stretch,” says Madeleine Elfenbein ’04, a former Crimson columnist and a member of PSLM at the time. The students affiliated with PSLM had hosted rallies; they had passed around petitions; they had lobbied for over four years, since the organization’s founding in 1997, in support of a “living wage” for Harvard’s workers.

“A sit-in,” Elfenbein acknowledges, “is a pretty major scaling-up of tactics.” The Mass. Hall sit-in would last 21 days, garner the attention of CNN and The New York Times, and spark campus-wide debate: centered, at least among the students, more on the methods of radical activism than on its goals. It was novel in its achievements, improving wages and benefits for Harvard’s lowest-paid workers, though it was not the first occupation of Harvard property by students; nor, clearly, would it be the last.The three-week sit-in, while fundamental to the platform, was not its only manifestation on campus. Nearly 100 people set up tents in Harvard Yard. The campaign organized daily pickets and rallies, which drew up to 2,000 people. The campaign received impromptu messages from U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy ’54-’56, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Some Harvard employees became involved: one dining hall employee in Adams House, according to Elfenbein, coordinated the food effort for the PSLM sitters-in, so that HUDS food was brought to them daily by dining hall workers.In a contemporaneous piece in the L.A. Times, PSLM member Ben McKean ’04 discussed the irony of strategizing on behalf of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers within “the plush trappings of Ivy aristocracy.”“We sleep on expensive rugs, and strategize in antique chairs,” wrote McKean. “Our meetings take place amid 18th century paintings and 19th century prints.”[1]

"Walk of Shame"

Paul Dexter joined marchers from the Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement and Harvard unions protesting the University’s labor practices in a “Walk of Shame” held March 17, 2003.

Over 50 protestors—including members of the Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) and various Harvard unions—joined a St. Patrick’s Day “Walk of Shame” through the Yard to draw attention to their grievances yesterday.

Brandishing noisemakers and beating drums, the protesters marched around campus and recited testimonials regarding labor disputes through a megaphone to an enthusiastic crowd. They chanted slogans like “Labor management Harvard-style is exploitation with a smile!” and “Two can’t do the work of four, Harvard you must hire more!”

Their procession took them from the front of the Holyoke Center to Lehman Hall, Widener Library, Lamont Library and Loeb House. Along the way, they held up traffic on Mass. Ave., discussing their cause with passers-by.

The PSLM-organized protest—one of its largest actions in recent memory—drew members from three of the University’s largest unions: the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 254 and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) Local 26.

The protesters accused Harvard of failing to live up to its promises following the conclusion of PSLM’s occupation of Mass. Hall two years ago. At the march’s various stopping points, workers approached the megaphone to plead their cases.

The subcontracting of work to non-union members, worker harassment, discrimination, layoffs and lack of full-time jobs were the most prominent issues presented by the protesters.

PSLM member Daniel Weissman ’05 said the march was not held in response to any one major University action but rather was a reaction to a number of smaller labor issues.

“These things just pile up one after another,” he said. “At some point, you have to say enough is enough.”

Marilyn Touborg, director of communications for Harvard’s Office of Human Resources, declined to comment on specific grievances, saying that the University preferred not to resolve labor issues publicly.

But Professor of Economics Lawrence Katz, who chaired the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policy convened following the Mass. Hall sit-in, said the University has made substantial progress in relations with custodians, dining hall workers and security workers—groups his committee covered.

“In terms of wages, benefits and contracting, there have been large improvements in the last year,” he said. “There have been very large [wage] increases, much larger than any national trend.”

But Aaron Bartley, a union organizer for SEIU Local 254, said the University has not followed through on its promise to create more full-time custodial jobs.

“The University remains committed to converting part-time positions to full-time positions on an attrition basis in accordance with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Harvard will strive to achieve that goal during the life of that contract.”

Multiple speakers accused the University of being greedy—saying it is sitting on a “pot of gold”—and alleged it has an anti-union agenda. HUCTW representative Geoff Carens mentioned an alleged human resources planning document that he said encourages harassment of employees with the goal of eliminating their jobs.

“It seems to me the long-term plan is clear—drive out the unions,” said HUCTW member Randy Fenstermacher. “Then bring in the low-wage workers.”

Fenstermacher, a Harvard College Library worker, himself generated a joint protest by HUCTW and PSLM earlier this month when Harvard denied his request to have union representation at a regular performance review.

Edward Childs, a representative from HERE Local 26—which represents dining hall workers—said the University informed him last Wednesday that there would be 50 fewer summer jobs available to dining hall employees this year.

Due to decreased food service demands during the summer, other departments at Harvard have historically taken on dining hall workers, Childs said, but those opportunities have been scaled back—an action which he said runs contrary to HERE’s contract agreement.

“It violated the crux of the agreement that we had—they said they would look into the summer situation,” he said, calling University President Larry Summers “a liar.”

He also said that 10 more union workers would not be able to obtain summer employment in non-union workplaces that had previously been open to them.

“We can’t get these jobs because we cause trouble,” Childs said. “Well, we intend to cause a lot more trouble.”

But Touborg said applications of dining service employees for summer employment had been submitted to other Harvard departments. They will be notified of their summer status in mid-April, she said.

Katz said the University had been making a good-faith effort to improve labor relations.[2]


  1. [Harvard Crimson. A Decade Ago, Another Occupation by VICTORIA A. BAENA Dec 1, 2011]
  2. Crimson, PSLM, Harvard Unions Join in ‘Walk of Shame’By STEPHEN M. MARKS, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER March 18, 2003