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News :: Labor
Putting Pressure on Harvard
by Keith Rosenthal
Email: keithmr81 (nospam) yahoo.com
16 May 2007
The fight for a just contract for the security guards' union, SEIU 615, at Harvard University.
Harvard University is one of the oldest and wealthiest universities in the country, with a $29 billion endowment. A veritable ivy-draped, gated community, Harvard prides itself on being a model of prestige and a leader amongst leaders.
But when it comes to the conditions of some of its workers, Harvard proves more to be a model of corporate greed and a leader in the denial of workers' rights.
This "dark side" of Harvard is coming into the light in the midst of a several weeks-old campaign being waged by the Harvard security guards' union and student activists for a living wage for the campus guards.
The security guards union, SEIU Local 615, is negotiating its first ever contract on behalf of the 265 security guards who voted to join the union in 2006. They are demanding living wages, steady full-time schedules, night-shift differentials, and full union recognition. The guards currently receive the lowest starting wages of all service workers on campus, and earn far less in starting pay than the guards at nearby MIT and Boston University.
"It's just not gonna work," says Misty McGowan, a security guard who is part of the bargaining committee, referring to present working conditions. "Currently, we get $12.68 an hour, while most service workers around here make between $15 and $15.50 an hour starting pay. Yet Harvard is still willing to keep up us that much under everyone else."
Immediate negotiations are between the guards and AlliedBarton, a private security guard firm contracted by Harvard. However, at the end of the day, Harvard University is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all workers on its campus receive fair wages.
In 2002, in the wake of a campus-wide campaign for a living wage for Harvard's unionized custodial staff, Harvard adopted a "Wage and Benefits Parity Policy." This policy stipulates that subcontractors who do business with Harvard must meet wage standards on parity with that of Harvard's other unionized workers.
So far, Harvard has been resistant to play any role whatsoever in the negotiations.
In response, a group of student activists in the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) started a campus-wide campaign to force Harvard to live up to its promises. On Thursday, May 3rd, 11 of those students began a hunger strike that would last for 9 days, and would see 2 hunger strikers hospitalized by the end.
For Kyle Krahel, one of the hunger strikers, it seemed there was no other choice. "This is an unacceptable situation [for the guards]," Krahel explained. "They can't feed their families, they can't afford medicine, they can't afford rent. We tried the rallies, and we tried the protests, and we tried the petitions, and sit-ins, and letters, and everything you could possibly think of, and so after all that, they still weren't listening. So now we decided this was the best way to escalate the strike . . . and we've gotten the administration's attention."
Although some students and faculty (not to mention administrators) have criticized the "extremity" of the hunger strike as a tactic, the strike has nonetheless electrified the campus, drawn increased local and national attention to the struggle, and has given confidence and inspiration to the guards to continue their fight.
As a result, the campus has overwhelmingly rallied around the hunger strikers and the guards in a wave of support. Everyday at 1pm and 9pm, dozens and hundreds of students gather in Harvard Yard for rallies that have become a daily ritual. On Tuesday, May 8, 200 students marched on the Holyoke Center, which houses the administrative and labor relations offices at Harvard, and shut the building down for over an hour, with campus police refusing to let anyone in or out.
An online petition has thus far garnered the signatures of over 1,200 Harvard undergraduates and over 1,000 faculty, staff, and community members. At least 31 campus organizations have signed on to support the campaign, including the Black Student Association, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Harvard College Democrats, the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Graduate Students Council, the Society of Arab Students, and others.
Further, at the end of April, the Undergraduate Council (UC) passed legislation in support of the security guards, and 7 UC members, including the UC President, went on a one-day hunger fast in solidarity with the 11 original hunger strikers.
Though the other campus unions, like the 4,800-strong Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), have yet to formally endorse the struggle, rank-and-file support inside these unions has been high. "Although our leadership has mainly ignored the campaign, many clerical union members have participated in rallies, vigils, and other public pressure," says Geoff Carens, a Union Representative in HUCTW. "Some members have even fasted in solidarity with the students."
On Friday, May 11, Harvard finally agreed to meet with the hunger strikers and issued a formal "concession statement" affirming its responsibility to intervene in negotiations and see that AlliedBarton meet its parity standards.
In light of this development, and at the concerned urging of the security guards themselves, the students ended their hunger strike later that day at a 100-strong rally in the Harvard Yard amidst a steady drizzle of rain. However, spirits remained high as the crowd chanted, "When we fight, we win!" and "We are unstoppable, another Harvard is possible!"
Though the hunger strike is over, the students and guards recognize that the struggle itself is far from over. "We have won this concession statement from Harvard, but we can't rest until we win a fair contract," says Kaveri Rajaram, another hunger striker. "We feel like the hunger strike was effective, but it's clear we have to escalate further. We need to do more, and we will do more."
In addition, SEIU Local 615 is organizing a protest on Thursday, May 17th, at 2pm at the Holyoke Center at Harvard University.
Due to the strength, scope, and determination of this campaign, it seems doubtful that Harvard will be able to escape from this struggle without having to grant major concessions. For many involved, that will have local as well as national significance. "The way I feel is that our particular group is setting an example once we get a fair contract with Harvard," says McGowan. "As we speak, there are people trying to unionize, and winning fair contracts all across the country. The movement is spreading."
You can sign the petition in support of the guards at: http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/slam/petition6. Also, visit http://stand4security.blogspot.com for more ways to help.
This work is in the public domain