Campus Living Wage Project


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

Jen Kern

Stanford University
Anna Mumford [to come]

Colorado College
Kai Stinchombe [to come]

Interested in being interviewed?

Page: Interview

Elaine Bernard
Director of the Harvard Trade Union Program

Interview Questions:
What's the connection between iving wage campaigns and the waning influence of unions on campus?

What is the problem with "contracting out" work, and how does Harvard's proposed parity wage policy help?

How did the campaign help beyond influencing policy?

How do you keep students involved in the campaign?

Do you have any advice for students?


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 wage” instead.

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 things.

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 low.

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 action.

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.

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
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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.