The most visible action by the
Harvard campaign was the sit-in. How did the sit-in benefit the
For most people, the cultural ideas of direct action come from
Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were tied into the labor
movement: the civil right movement is the labor movement, the labor
movement is the civil rights movement. I think those are the examples
that we are drawing from at Harvard. At the same time, we are trying
to become more knowledgeable of labor history itself. But I don’t
know if a lot of people saw the sit-in as a labor action as much
as a civil rights action and going back in that tradition, rather
than the tradition of the CIO [Congress of Industrialized Organizations]
in the 1930s.
You know when you talk about student activism, a lot of people
talk about “freedom summer,” but they don’t talk
about students active in the labor movement, although there’s
a long tradition of that. Of course, there’s also a long tradition
of students as strike breakers or “scabs,” as I’m
currently learning, and actually Harvard have been part of that
as well. Students have been involved as strike breakers, but they
have also been involved as part of the labor movement, trying to
I think for the most part, everybody saw the sit-in as an overwhelming
success. If anything, people were saying, “We should have
stayed longer: it would have only been more successful, not less
successful.” It was amazing the amount of press coverage that
we generated, and it was amazing the level of support from the student
body. It felt amazing at times.
As far as the victories of the sit-in, we felt like we won a lot.
As time went on, at least I felt that the Living Wage was a fluid
concept. Talking with workers, you realize that it’s really
a small step. Of course worker’s wages on-campus have improved
pretty substantially. But I think the larger issue was raising the
consciousness of workers on this campus, of students on this campus,
and the country and the world about labor rights about how working
people are getting screwed. That’s what I take out of it as
the best thing. All my relatives were suddenly learning more about
the labor situation, and I think it’s really important that
it gets into people’s heads -- and we get the labor movement
back in people’s heads.
How has working closely with the
unions changed your understanding of the campaign and its goals?
I’ve had a lot of negative experiences with unions, to the
point where I’m started to get really frustrated. I’m
not frustrated with unions as a concept at all, I’m just frustrated
with the bureaucracy that they become and the top-down styles that
they use. In a way, they can also be an institution of disempowerment
for worker. However, I still think that they are the only hope for
working people to have a say over their lives, and that they are
going to be the vehicle for empowerment. They have been that, in
the past, and they are now, to some extent. But I believe that we
really need to work on making unions democratic institutions. Workers
aren’t just sitting on their jobs, taking licks from their
bosses, from their managers, and not doing anything about it. They
want to do something about it, and we need to organize
people so they can have say. It’s not just about the eight
hours or twelve hours you’re on the job, it’s the way
you think about yourself, whether you have power over your own life
or whether you’re subject to other powers.
I’m actually questioning how students can help get respect
for workers. Because maybe higher wages are the most important thing
for some people, but there’s also the entire culture of the
workplace that can be a very demeaning culture, wherein workers
basically have to sacrifice eight hours of their day to this undemocratic
institution. I’m wondering how students, Living Wage campaigns,
and student labor organizations can help with those struggles. But
they seem like much more organic struggles, and I’m not sure
if we can understand them: the daily struggle at the workplace for
control over who’s going to do what job, over discrimination,
It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point where
the free-market ideology has gotten to such a position of power.
It’s almost the dominant ideology- I wouldn’t say that
it’s totally up there, but it’s really on the offensive.
It’s tough being rooted in that, and in a culture that gives
this to you. Your education doesn’t necessarily provide you
with an alternative, so you have to look outside of that. It is
tough for us to deal with that. For instance, my economics class
here will not give me any alternative to free-market, neo-classical
economic theory (and there are plenty of alternatives out there)
and that really stifles your thought. So part of the process of
all this is unlearning those ideologies. It’s a war, almost,
to fight what they’re teaching and really find out what’s
true and what’s not true. These ideologies have not been created
in a vacuum: they have been created and pushed by certain interest.
That’s what I truly believe.
The existing unions have a lot of problems- some of them are good,
some of them are horrible, and most of them are decent but are tough
to work with for as students. It was tough, in the last few months,
working to organize janitors for their contract campaign here: working
somewhat independently of the union, and then having (this is my
opinion) them push a certain wage level on the workers in a pretty
I think students should be making the contacts with the unions,
but more importantly making contacts with workers on-campus, and
figuring out how to creatively solve the problems that they face.
Studnets also need to know how to also push for more democracy in
the unions, which will only strengthen these campaigns.
There’s an awful lot of opportunity right now to work with
organized labor, but it’s going to be a question of are we
working for organized labor (which, for me, means that
maybe you have some input, but for the most part are working for
them) or are we going to be working with organized labor
(which is just a little bit better, in my opinion). Campaigns working
with organized labor are going to be supporting the unions but remain
somewhat independent from them. Or, as a third option, are students
going to be working, not against organized labor, but working
to democratize organized labor. It’s more like working with
workers, and figuring out how best to create change on a local level,
in a more democratic manner than when larger institutions or when
union bureaucracies get involved. I hope that students will work
for the third option.
How would you characterize the
relationship between the Harvard campaign and the unions?
At Harvard, I’d say it was more working with unions. We
independently talked to workers, and tried to organize workers through
the Worker’s Center here. It was more working with unions,
seeing them as the major institutional supporters of the campaign,
and attempting to get the support of their leadership; while, at
the same time, having these conversations with workers which were
important. But most of the focus I believe was on the top-level
union leaders and less on the organizing of workers, which says
something about the way Living Wage Campaigns run: they pick out
who are going to be the important influences on the university.
Obviously unions, or union leaders, politicians, and community groups
will influence the university. But at the same time that might not
be the most empowering or democratic way of running a campaign.
Maybe it will be the most successful way, but not the most democratic.
What we’ve been working on since the sit-in has been to organize
workers and less just pushing on the university to change its policies.
Everybody agrees that there are
important differences between advocacy and organizing. How do you
understand the difference? How would characterize Harvard’s
I think when you’re doing advocacy, you have a bias towards
the influential people, instead of building up a true democratic
movement. But when you’re doing organizing, then you’re
really working towards (I keep on going back to these two phrases)
empowerment and democracy. I think people come around to that, and
that can be one of the most difficult things to realize. And its
also a point of contention: “what should the focus be?”
It also impacts the way you run your campaign. I also think there’s
a bias in saying “let’s go door to door and talk to
students today,” rather than “let’s go dining
hall to dining hall to talk to all the workers in there and try
to get them out to this rally.” Some of it is practical: who
will actually have the time to come to this? Students will. But
at the same time, there are certain biases involved.
In Spring of 2001, particularly, we were focused on the organizing
of influential people because some people felt that that was the
way to really influence policy. We weren’t necessarily doing
that much outreach to workers. But it also takes experience to do
that, and, at the same time, there were enormous rallies of workers
going on because the dining hall workers had negotiations then.
But I would definitely change that to build more bonds between students
and workers. We went into that sit-in and I’m sure that there
were plenty of people who had never talked to a worker. That’s
fine, but I would have definitely changed what our focus was more
towards organizing. However, who knows if it would have been more
successful, if it implied that we would have to dedicate more resources
to organizing workers than organizing politicians.
I think that these campaigns can be an important part of people’s
education about what it means to participate in a democracy and
to really make sure that people aren’t thinking about their
own power, but are thinking about the way that they can work to
make sure that everybody has the same type of power. There’s
a number of possibilities that people can come out of these campaigns
with. You can come out committed to improving the lives of people,
but at the same time, where do you see yourself? Do you see yourself
as a leader of that fight because you’re going to have some
sort of institutional importance? For instance, are you going to
be a union president? Or are you going to come out of the campaign
and be a grass-roots organizer who are really working with people
on an equal level?
Do you have any advice for the
students working on Living Wage campaigns elsewhere?
Number one, don’t be afraid of workers. Talk to them as much
as you can, get to know them- that should be a central part of your
campaign. It can be a central part of your learning experience in
Focus on the educational aspects of all of this. Learn about the
labor movement, learn about the history. That helps you find out
exactly what you’re doing, and what you’re facing. Plus,
it’s fun to learn this stuff. That’s one way that I’m
able to enjoy doing this -- and you have to enjoy it. I think a
lot of people get frustrated on the focus of “work, work,
work.” I think a lot of people want to step back and analyze
what they’re doing, and make it part of their education. People
want to have fun while they’re doing it and not have to just
keep working, almost unthinkingly.