Welcome to the occupation

Maple Razsa, an organizer from last year's living wage sit-in at Harvard, talks about his documentary on the event, snooping administrators and Oprah's take on poverty.

Published June 3, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Harvard University is stunningly rich. It's the wealthiest nonprofit in the world after the Catholic Church. It lives off the interest of its $18 billion endowment, which has doubled in the last six years. And tuition could be eliminated without harming a single leaf of the school's ivy. But all those facts had a way of disappearing when it came time to pay campus service workers. Until this past year, the school got away with employing janitors, guards and dining hall employees at embarrassingly less than a living wage.

It was May 2001 that the Harvard Living Wage Campaign ended its 21-day occupation of the building housing the president's office, the longest sit-in in the university's history, and certainly one of the most effective. The campus group had been working for years to convince the school to begin paying workers a wage appropriate to living costs in the area. Over 1,000 campus employees were said to earn less than $10.25 an hour, the minimum wage in Cambridge, Mass. -- in many cases much less. Despite petitions, rallies and meetings with the administration, the group saw no results.

The sit-in was supposed to last about five days. But when support began to build (parallel protests outside became a tent city; Democratic Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy came to voice solidarity; and most importantly, campus workers disregarded threats from employers and instead came to rally with the students) the protesters hunkered down.

Police maintained a constant presence in the occupied building, waiting for the students to slip up and surrender any of their seized territory. "I will resign before I will negotiate," said Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard's president at the time. Three weeks after the protest began, Rudenstine changed his mind and agreed to form a committee of students, professors, administrators and union employees to review campus labor conditions. "These movements represent a new moral consciousness," Robert Reich said at the conclusion of the occupation.

Maple Razsa, one of the campaign's organizers, borrowed a digital video camera for the sit-in, and in the months after the protest, he directed and co-produced "Occupation," a documentary of the event. Narrated by Ben Affleck, whose father was a janitor and stepmother a cleaning woman at Harvard, the film has begun to attract attention. Historian Howard Zinn called it a "wonderful gift," and scenes from "Occupation" were recently shown on "Oprah." The film has been screened in small venues around the country, and in July will run at New York's Pioneer Theater.

I talked to Razsa recently (full disclosure: Maple is an old friend) about the living wage movement, life inside the sit-in -- there was one bathroom -- and Oprah's strange take on poverty.

How did you respond to critics who said, "These janitors don't have to work at Harvard. If they don't like their wages, why not let someone else take the job who actually wants the $8 an hour"?

You have to counter that by asking, why are people working two or three jobs? Are they foolish? Have they just not thought about all their options? If they thought they could get more money somewhere else, they'd have gone somewhere else.

Look at what's happened to low-paid workers around the country over the last 15 years. The minimum wage hasn't kept pace at all with the cost of living, so people end up working two or three jobs just to get by, whereas a single job as a janitor 15 years ago was much closer to being a professional position. You could make $40,000 a year as a janitor.

One criticism we heard was borrowed from the minimum wage debate. People would say if you start paying people more, there'll be a different educational and racial makeup in the workforce -- you're fucking with the perfect invisible hand, and there'll be unexpected consequences. We usually countered that Harvard is the largest employer in the state of Massachusetts. It isn't overwhelmed by market forces -- in fact, it has the power to decide who it hires, and what their educational and racial makeup is.

Where does the campaign stand now?

Right now things are fairly wrapped up in terms of the living wage campaign at Harvard. Out of the sit-in, a committee was formed that was inclusive of the students involved in the sit-in, low-paid workers, a few administrators and faculty. It took about six months to do a study of Harvard labor policies. One result of that process was that wages were renegotiated for the three unions that represent low-paid workers on campus.

It's a significant improvement. In terms of the wage that people are at now, it's higher than what we'd been demanding. The janitors now make a starting minimum of $11.35, and the guards make $11.15 starting, and they had made as low as $8. The thing that's key about it is that it doesn't only cover people directly hired by Harvard and represented by unions, but there's a parity clause, which means anyone who's subcontracted is required to get matching pay and benefits to those directly hired. That's really big.

Subcontracting is way to shift responsibility for employment practices to a third party -- it mirrors the use of offshore production with sweatshops, in a lot of ways. So this should undermine the incentive for hiring outsourced labor, because it's primarily been used to leverage against directly hired people.

The exception is that these wage increases aren't pegged to inflation -- it's essentially a one-time increase. The workers will have to start over again and negotiate with the university in three years, so it's just going to be a constant struggle.

Given that most of the world isn't familiar with these criticisms, was the protest viewed as a bunch of privileged whining at first?

I think some did think that before the sit-in -- including Harvard workers themselves -- but the direct action won workers over, as well as other people. In the making of the film, one woman I interviewed, a janitor, told me she'd said to herself, Who are these kids, they just want some excitement, they just want an issue to be concerned with. But as the sit-in developed, she said she was won over by the commitment.

Also, it helped that we'd tried everything else, prior to the sit-in. We met with the administration on 14 occasions, we'd had petitions, we'd had a dozen protests. Clearly this institution was not going to budge without direct action. So being able to argue that we'd tried everything else was essential to the success of the sit-in.

How did the school explain its resistance initially?

They claimed that other changes would be more advantageous to workers than better wages, such as free education -- the claim being that people could work their way up to a better job. We agreed that education was a key component to benefits at Harvard, but they gave the impression to the public that Harvard workers had the opportunity to receive Harvard degrees, when in fact all that was offered was ESL and a few computer classes.

More fundamental, though, was the problem that the workers often worked two or three jobs, and there was never any time to take advantage of these education programs. They gave free museum passes to the Harvard Museum. Most landlords don't accept that as a form of barter.

How does the Harvard Corporation [the school's executive governing board] fit in here?

It's the Harvard Corporation that lies at the center of most of Harvard's problems -- issues of a lack of democratic accountability and transparency, and community responsibility reside in its governance structure.

It's a remarkable club. It was set up by the court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1650, and has seven members, including the president of Harvard. They self-select replacements, so it's essentially a social club that runs continuously from 1650 without any outside input. The list of overlapping corporate boards that intersect with the corporation is staggering -- Exxon-Mobil, Ford, DynCorp and, until recently, Enron.

There is a board of overseers, elected by alumni, and technically it has to approve decisions by the corporation, but it has never contradicted them. It's essentially a rubber stamp.

Tell me how the actual sit-in began.

About an hour before we went into Massachusetts Hall, we gathered one by one in a basement next door. We had been very secretive: We had a number of false communications on our university e-mail accounts, and set up Yahoo accounts to do our real planning. We had received information that the administration was reading and monitoring our e-mail. In fact at one point a school guard actually showed us an e-mail of ours that had been printed out and used in preparation for a protest we were going to have. So we were fearful that they'd discover the plan and we wouldn't be able to get into the building.

What was it like once you were inside?

We tried to do things with a light touch. It's a pretty conservative school, and we had to maintain the moral high ground if we were going to succeed. No smoking, no drinking -- we didn't even sit on the antique furniture.

The conditions in general were rough. We had a single bathroom for 48 people, and no shower. We slept on the floor. It was 21 days of never being by yourself. But a real feeling of camaraderie developed.

We only brought enough food for five days -- we hadn't planned to stay so long. The dining hall workers came to the door on the first night with food, and were told by police that they couldn't deliver it. But the workers were incredibly forceful, and began chanting, and said that one way or another they were going to feed us. So the police conceded, and that's sort of how we ended up eating. Community groups and area restaurants donated a lot of food.

The first few days felt pretty tenuous. Most workers didn't feel safe coming to the protest -- they were told they'd be fired, or deported if they were undocumented. And more subtle intimidation happened, too: not giving people overtime, or shifting them to the night shift.

What made it a success was the lesson that the way students were able to use their privilege ended up creating a stage and transforming the political atmosphere in such a way that workers started to feel empowered and emboldened to speak for themselves. They started to plan their own protests, and by the second week, they were marching on the director of labor relations' office and delivering a list of demands. That was moving to see.

What was the relationship between the workers and the students?

It was pretty amazing. There was almost a kind of social fission as class and race lines were crossed. We had spoken with workers for a long time leading up to this, so it wasn't like we didn't know each other before, but being in the struggle together brought us to a new level. Not since the 1930s has there been an alliance like the kind we're seeing now between students and workers, as far as I know.

Why did labor fall out of vogue among college activists?

I think it's partly a product of labor's politics during the Cold War, in that organized labor took a strong supporting role alongside the State Department. In the '80s, they even toed the Reagan line on Central America. That's partly a product of McCarthy-era purges that happened in the labor movement, the fear of always being attacked as a communist. A lot of activists and students felt alienated from them because of that. So I think the post-Cold War setting creates new possibilities, which might be why we're seeing such an amazing upswing of this kind of activism.

How was "Oprah"?

"Oprah" was kind of a disaster. She was doing a follow-up on a show she'd done a year earlier on making it on the minimum wage. It was moving to see, insofar as you rarely see the daily struggle of low-paid workers on mainstream television. That said, it was politically irresponsible.

The whole show built toward finding out what happened to these two workers, a year later. We kept hearing that something had improved, and that we'd be hearing shortly what that was after the next commercial. When we finally got to that moment, we learned that when these workers were on the show last year, there happened to be a multimillionaire Wall Street financier in the audience, and he decided to give them a small stipend. So apparently the policy solution for the 30 million working poor in America is to find Wall Street financier sponsors. There was a tearful thank you to the millionaire, who was smiling in the audience. Nice.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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Academia Harvard The Labor Movement Unemployment