Campus Living Wage Project

Interviews

Harvard University
Elaine Bernard
Dan Dimaggio
Madeleine Elfenbein
Lawrence Katz
Roona Ray & Amy Offner

Brown University
Peter Asen
Matthew Jerzyk (Jobs for Justice)
Nick Rutter
Anissa Weinraub

Swarthmore College
Sam Blair
Kae Kalwaic

Economic Policy Institute
Jared Bernstein

ACORN
Jen Kern

Stanford University
Anna Mumford [to come]

Colorado College
Kai Stinchombe [to come]

Interested in being interviewed?

Page: Interview

Dan DiMaggio
Student Activist, Harvard University

Interview Questions:
How did the sit-in benefit the Harvard campaign?
How has working with unions changed your goals for the campaign?
What is the relationship between the Harvard campaign and the unions?
What is the difference between organizing and advocacy?
Do you have any advice for students working on campaigns elsewhere?

---------------------------------

The most visible action by the Harvard campaign was the sit-in. How did the sit-in benefit the Harvard campaign?

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 support it.

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, and etc.

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 undemocratic manner.

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 campaign?

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 life.

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.

Living Wage Links: ACORN / Harvard PSLM / Economic Policy Institute / Jobs for Justice / United Students Against Sweatshops / LabourStart / PERI / United for a Fair Economy

Last Updated 12.18.04
Research and design by Adam Stone
astone(at)stanford.edu
Feedback welcome
site map

This research project was generously funded by the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, and supported through the efforts of Kent Koth, Renato Rosaldo, my family, and many friends and kind strangers.