Note: This interview was conducted with
Richard Freeman of Harvard University present and contributing.
His comments have not been directly included here, but contributed
to the focus and development of this interview.
Many people I’ve spoken to
connect the emergence of Living Wage campaigns to the decreasing
strength of unions to negotiate contracts for workers. Is this right?
I don’t think there’s any question of that the Living
Wage movement comes out of a vacuum of bargaining power because
of the amount of non-unionized workers. You can make illegal or
difficult or impossible all forms of collective bargaining, and
there's a number of ways of doing that: you can de-unionize, you
can contract out, you can union bust. However you do it, you don’t
shut the voice down, and you don’t stop collective action:
you just put it underground and put it into other forms.
In the past, you wouldn’t have seen students doing this because
the unions themselves could do it. Today, the unions are weaker,
and they are much more constrained in what they are able to do.
They are constrained in the sense they often represent immigrant
workers, who are low-paid, who don’t speak English, and who
are not able to take action. One example I used in class is that
if the janitors had sat-in the president’s office, they would
have been fired, and the union would have been fined. It is just
not conceivable--but the students could do that. So the students
in fact were freer to take actions that the unions were.
The second reason is that the unions, because of contracting out
and other issues, have really seen a great diminishment of their
power. In that vacuum (nature abhors a vacuum) people don’t
just roll over. What happens is that they find different ways start
to fight for decent pay.
Various employers use contracting out, or “privatization,”
as a way to avoid union wages and bargaining. Living wage agreements
are often seen as a way to remove the incentive for institutions
to contract out work. Harvard solved this problem through a “parity
As you've said, often employers
use "contracting out" as a way to avoid union wages and
bargaining. Harvard attempted to solve this problem through a “parity
wage” rather than a living wage policy. Why is contracting
out bad for workers, and how does a parity wage help?
Here’s where the problem is. If from the outside you looked
at staff wages at Stanford, for instance, you’d say, “Well
look: for Stanford employee janitors, the wages haven’t been
going down.” But look at the numbers of janitors: have their
numbers been going down? The numbers are probably going down so
that you end up with a fraction of the original janitors because
most of the janitorial work is now being done by contractors. The
in-house janitors are disappearing, and, with them, the high wages.
A provision of the agreed-upon settlement at Harvard was to set
up a committee on wages and contract workers. While it didn’t
totally embrace the Living Wage policy, I think it embraced something
that’s probably more powerful: a “parity wage.”
(Although we’ll argue over this for another two or three years).
"Parity" means that Harvard will insist that all contractors
and anyone who is hired by the university meet the standards that
Harvard sets through collective bargaining with its unions. Which
is perfect: it brings the best of free collective bargaining with
the best of the Living Wage, and it puts the two together. It takes
the sting out of contracting, and yet it leaves the notion of collective
negotiations over wages and working conditions.
If the purpose of privatization is to get a more efficient workforce,
and it is still more efficient, then workers will still win out.
But if it’s solely to reduce the price of labor, then the
workers definitely will. Read the
report from the "Harvard Committee on Employment
and Contracting Policies (HCECP, also known as the Katz Committee)
headed by economist Lawrence Katz [interviewed
here]. It’s quite worth it. I don’t think you’ll
see a clearer report that basically says that Harvard used contracting
out to lower the wages of its most vulnerable employees over the
last ten years.
In the end, Harvard did not accept
a Living Wage policy but a parity wage policy. However, certainly
this point would not have been reached without the efforts of the
Harvard Living Wage Campaign. How did the campaign contribute beyond
the actual policy-making?
There are many other places Living Wage campaigns make a difference.
This is the first generation in years (possibly back to the thirties)
that has actually, as students, concerned themselves with working
people. I mean think about it: students at Stanford and Harvard
are talking about low pay? I mean, give me a break. What was the
last you heard Americans talk about that since the thirties, and
actually doing something about it? If you think about the big student
movements of the sixties, it wasn’t like this. It wasn’t
focused on workers, rather it was focused on joblessness and other
Never underestimate the systemic, long-term impact of activism
during formative years. We know from British studies that if you’re
not involved in or active in a union by the time you’re 26,
you’re likelihood of being in a union later is very, very
The second way to understand how these campaigns make a difference
(in a much more narrow way) is to think about where this campaign
came from. The Living Wage, if you look at the evolution of it,
starts off from two places. One, it starts with the anti-sweatshop
campaigns, with a union link through the United Students
Against Sweatshops (USAS).
Remember, the anti-sweatshop work is focused on the developing world,
not the domestic world.
The second root of the college campaigns is the Living Wage campaigns
in cities. By bringing those campaigns to campus for the first time,
activists are bringing it to a private sector-- not a non-profit
employer, but a private sector employer. It’s one thing to
do campaign within political jurisdictions, where it’s all
about pressure and politics. Now, however, campaigns moving into
private jurisdictions, into private labor law, and into private
relationships. Once you establish the precedent, you can then ask
the whether you can then take it other places. Can you start to
look at other vulnerable private employers? Now that there is a
precedent, a precedent that has worked (while there are unique things
about a university), you can see how there’s a little bit
of potential there.
How do you keep students involved
in the campaign, especially when that means working with university
bureaucracies and unions?
You have to ask yourself “what do the students get out of
it?” I don’t mean to be crass, but I think with the
living wage campaign, there was altruism, but also think about where
the campaign came from: it came from the idea of building stronger
relations in students' own community. It was not just a single altruistic
They built a worker’s center here at Harvard. Why was it
successful? Because they rooted it right here in the relationships
on the campus, in the environment that the students are responsible
for: the university. Students view themselves as both consumers
and as citizens of the university, and they have a right to demand
the best out of it.
What advice to you have for the
students working on Living Wage campaigns?
The one point I would make is one we talked about earlier. Unfortunately,
for these campaigns to really have a lasting impact, you have to
leave behind an institution. And the institution that gives these
workers some power and some voice is a union.
Ultimately it’s a good thing to win money and improve the
wages and working conditions for employees, but ultimately it’s
best to actually leave them with something that they themselves
own, which is in fact their own organization. Even when the relationships
get a little strained and tough with unions, you have to go back
to it. Ultimately, I think that any victory can disappear in a year
or two if the workers don’t have their own organization. What’s
tricky here is to do that while keeping pressure on the union to
make the union real, to make it democratic.
I think students can help do this. I think they already have. They
have done it in a number of ways: they have done it by invigorating
the campuses; they have done it by raising some of these grievances;
they have done it by putting the spotlight on these issues. I’ve
seen it here at Harvard. A couple of the unions that were pretty
sleepy until this campaign have managed to build leaders, indigenous
leaders right here on campus, who are now outspoken and knowledgeable
and are rising in the union. That’s a good thing.
But it's also understanding that ultimately the students need to
work with the union, and cannot completely be a
substitution for it. The union itself has its role to play. Students
shaking it up, getting it onboard, jump starting it is great. But
ultimately, you can’t abandon it.