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News :: Labor
Harvard Janitors Fight For Real Living Wage; Will Students Muster Renewed Support?
24 Oct 2005
Crashing cymbals, booming water cooler jugs and rattling shakers improvised from soda bottles and pebbles lent a boisterous sonic dimension to a rally by about 70 Harvard Janitors and a hand full of supporters outside the University's administrative offices on Massachusetts Ave. on the first Friday of October.

While super enthusiastic, the rally, which marked the first formal effort to draw public attention to the new round of contract negotiations between the janitors, represented by SEIU 615 and university last month, was also notably for the absence of a contingent whom many familiar with recent labor struggles at the university might have considered a key element.

Four years ago something between a gaggle and a gob of Harvard undergraduates were leading the charge at the university and across the country to achieve the outlandish utopian dream that folks they had far to much tact to refer to as ‘the help’ being paid a wage commensurate with the local cost of living.
The Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which culminated in a 21-day occupation of the venerable institution’s presidents’ office, was instrumental in securing a base wage of $11.35 an hour and some benefits for the janitors in 2002. The wage increase brought janitors’ pay up to a ‘living wage’ as defined by the city of Cambridge. Janitors are currently being paid between $13 and $14 an hour.

The current contract between the university and janitors represented by the Service Employees Union International local 615 is up in November. And the janitors are planning to build on the gains made last time around. According to janitor and bargaining committee member Melba Suazo, the janitors’ demands include raising the base wage to around $20 an hour. Workers are also pushing the university to provide more sick days, implementing a graduated system for vacation time that starts at 3 weeks a year for new hires, 4 weeks after 5 years and 5 weeks after 10, as well as a 10% differential for third shift workers and for snow removal, Suazo said.

Or rather blared through a bullhorn for the approximately 70 janitors and supporters on hand along with a handful of curious onlookers. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the folks lurching through Harvard Square that rainy afternoon, a suspicious number of them bearing backpacks and clutching bulky books, wholly indifferent to what was going on around them.

“We are here today to let the people know we are ready to fight.” Suazo said, “While people are in their bargaining ten times as many of us are going to be out here fighting.”

There are 19 janitors on the bargaining committee hailing from 13 different countries including Cape Verde, Columbia, Honduras and El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic. While the bargaining committee members’ native tongues include Haitian Creole and Portuguese as well as English and Spanish, negotiations are being successfully conducted with only Spanish and English translations.

According to an SEIU fact sheet, workers are basing their wage demand on numerous estimate including those by The Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, The National Low Income Housing Coalition and The Economic Policy Institute that put a living wage in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area at between $834 and $959 a week for a family of two.

The SEIU says that at $560 a week, the top salary available to Harvard janitors falls well short of these estimates and that about 35% can not even get enough hours to meet the City Of Cambridge’s living wage requirement of $488 a week.

The fact sheet also points out that while other area universities, including Brandeis, The Massachusetts Institute Of Technology, Boston University and Boston College subsist on a fraction of Harvard’s $23 billion dollar endowment, they all manage to pay their workers more. MIT, with an endowment of about $7 billion a year manages to shell out $16.50/hr. for their janitors after three years and Boston College pays their workers almost $18/hr. even they only have about $2 billion in the bank

In 2001, The Living Wage Campaign succeeded in securing janitors a wage of $11.35, retroactive to May 2001 with an increase to $11.85 in October 2002, which met the campaign’s demand that wages be increased to at least $11.11 an hour, which was the living wage as defined by the city of Cambridge. In its 2001 year-end report, after the campaign’s successful conclusion, the HLWC noted that,

"More and more, we heard from workers that the Cambridge living wage was just not enough. The Campaign has always said that Harvard must do *at least* as well as the City but the city’ number of $11.11, an hour (in 2001) does not represent a magic threshold above which life suddenly becomes easy…Many campus workers have said that it would take wages closer to $15 an hour for them to be able to work less than two jobs."

So thanks in part to the Harvard students’ successful efforts, the stakes have risen since 2001, but where were the students now? As the ralliers marched from Harvard Square to University President Larry Summer’s office, I could convince few students to even stop and talk to me. Of those who stopped, most seemed either wholly unable to discern why a horde of non-native folks was storming through their serene campus shouting slogans in Spanish and Haitian Creole. Of the handful of respondents most seemed either embarrassed to admit that they even knew what a union was if not completely oblivious. There were a few notable exceptions, one of whom described happy surprise at having stumbled on the rally once it had move over to the University’s President’s Office and who pointed me toward Christine Tellez, an SEIU student organizer.

“The reason there weren’t students,” Tellez explained, “Was there wasn’t time.” I found this a little hard to swallow because I had learned about the rally the previous week when I overheard a conversation on a street on the other side of the next town over and I am pretty sure that these Harvard students are hip to the ‘inter-web.’

The following Monday I attended a forum which Tellez described as an opportunity for the student and the janitors to meet face to face.”

The time at the meeting was divided between a large group discussion on how to coordinate upcoming actions and what the students could do to support the janitors, and breakout sessions into smaller groups so the students could learn more about the workers.

One janitor, who identified herself as Elvira, said that she was working 75 hours a week to meet her financial obligations. Another janitor said she was only getting 20 hours of work a week and has to take six busses to commute to work each day. It was explained at the meeting that different corporations manage different buildings on the Harvard campus, so Elvira is able to get so many hours because she essentially has two different employers.

A third janitor, Jose Checo, said that when he was transferred to the Harvard Business School, his new employer tried to reclassify him as a temporary worker. Checo filed a successful grievance through the SEIU to get reinstated as a permanent employee.

“Now that we are with the union,” Checo said, “We know we have strength.”

According to Courtney Snegroff an SEIU organizer for the janitors, the division of different sections of the campus between different corporations is causing some trouble at the bargaining table. “The Harvard Labor Relations Committee is saying they can’t respect seniority or demands regarding hours because different clients run different buildings.”

At the meeting Snegroff requested that SLAM set up meetings with the companies running the different sections of campus to pressure them to respect union demands.

SLAM coordinator, Alyssa Aguilera was confident that students would be able to set up the necessary meetings in a timely manner. “The thing about Harvard is that 98% of the students live on campus. We are on a first name basis with a lot of the folks who work here. We see them every day. Going to talk to the managers is something you feel obligated to do.” The meetings will be set up through house networks with students meeting with officials who run the areas where they live, Aguilera said.

Snegroff said that while the SEIU is actually asking the students to meet with the owners of the buildings rather than the managers and the housing network Aguilera was referring to might not comprehensively cover all of the sections of Harvard owned by different corporations, it is all right because, “We just want them to go to the meetings, we will set them up.”

The meeting, attended by about 30 people was spit pretty evenly between students and janitors. It appeared to be the first formal meeting between the two groups. After a brief discussion of upcoming actions, which included discussion about students doing civil disobedience training, attendees split to discuss the basics of working conditions for the janitors and what their demands are.

And in the interim, SLAM has been working fast to catch students up on the recent history of successful organizing carried out by labor/student coalitions. On the 25th and 26th Harvard held a 2 day teach in about a recent successful living wage campaign at Georgetown University.

The Georgetown Living Wage Campaign, inspired in part by the Harvard effort, succeeded in raising the wage at the Washington DC. University from about $11 to $13 in 2006 with an additional raise to $14 in 2008 at which point it will be “adjusted annually taking into consideration Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers in the Baltimore-Washington Area (CPI-W) and regional labor market conditions.”

While the Georgetown Living Wage Campaign declared its victory in April of this year, the Harvard campaign ran between 1998 and 2001, placing it outside of direct institutional memory for the current Harvard students. “A lot of us were in high school in 2001,” Aguilera explained, “Some of us chose to come to Harvard because we were inspired by the Living Wage Campaign’s success.”

According to Michael Gould-Wartorsky, a student organizer with SLAM, at Harvard, “The student side of organizing died for a couple of years,” after the Living Wage Campaign.

Both Watorsky and Aguilera, two key organizers for SLAM, were still in high school when the Living Wage Campaign went on, but they both have previous labor organizing experience.

Aguilera explained that, “A lot of students are willing to help but many have not been involved in labor organizing before.” She predicted that the group would be able to turn out 100 to 200 students for an October 28th union rally in Harvard Square.

Watorsky maintained that students will play as big of a role supporting workers as they did four years ago, but it will be different, “In the sit-ins the students lead and set the agenda. Now we are working in solidarity. We picked up their demands, we are supporting their effort.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether a supporting role is something that Harvard students will throw themselves into as passionately as they did in 2001, when nearly fifty students occupying Massachusetts Hall, were supported by pickets of up to 2000 people. It remains to be seen whether student support even at that level will be sufficient to win the Harvard janitors a real living wage.

Snegroff, for one is not holding her breath. “I don’t think we can rely on the students, and I have told everyone this.” She said, “The last group was special. We might get that kind of support, but this time around we have to mount our own campaign.”
See also:
Related stories on this site:
October 28 Rally to Support Harvard Janitors

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Harvard students Fight For Real Luxry salry
24 Oct 2005
thanks for sticking it to those students. They can be great allies, but they need to be held acountable.
Re: Harvard Janitors Fight For Real Living Wage; Will Students Muster Renewed Support?
24 Oct 2005
Nice to know what my "husband" thinks of me.
Re: Harvard Janitors Fight For Real Living Wage; Will Students Muster Renewed Support?
25 Oct 2005
yeah, right. "sticking it" to students in solidarity and not to the bosses? which side are you on?
just stick it on a post-it
26 Oct 2005
I wasn't trying to 'stick it' to the students. I was trying to write a story about the news. There is stuff in the article about Harvard being a bad employer, recalcitrant (sp?), and exploitative even compared to other area universities, but i thought the real story was the changing tenor of student involvement and what it means for the workers. What it means is that this round of contract negotiations is not goingto be a cake walk and the janitors need more support from everyone, in my opinion. which side am i on?
Re: Harvard Janitors Fight For Real Living Wage; Will Students Muster Renewed Support?
26 Oct 2005
Janitors make $13-14 an hour? $16.50? $18? HOLY SHIT!

Graduate students live off way less than that, and don't get benefits like 401Ks or paid vacations.

They are able to live around Cambridge, Somerville, Allston, and Medford just fine. (Although in all fairness, a fraction get cheap on-campus housing.)

What the fuck is the issue here?
To quote myself
26 Oct 2005
learn to read:

"The SEIU says that at $560 a week, the top salary available to Harvard janitors falls well short of these estimates and that about 35% can not even get enough hours to meet the City Of Cambridge’s living wage requirement of $488 a week."

Note also that the living wage estimates are based on the presumption that the employee has at least 1 dependent.

"The Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, The National Low Income Housing Coalition and The Economic Policy Institute that put a living wage in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area at between $834 and $959 a week for a family of two."

i really have no idea how much Grad students make i know i manage to support myself on what i hope will consistently work out to be about $300 a week. I do all right, i am sure i live more frugally than most grad students...but i don't have kids and i am not working to suport a family.

I am not an econ expert but I have talked to some students working for their phd's in the field and you know there are non-monetary incentives for roughing it A LITTLE to get through grad school, like a future full of high five and six figure salaries. These incentives for the most part probably do not exist for harvard janitors.

Whose next?