Note: Although not an activist, economics professor Lawrence
Katz chaired the committee formed to investigate the employment
practices of Harvard University (the so-called "Katz Committee").
The report issued by the committee on Harvard's practices is available
HCECP (Katz) Report.
Why did the students launch the
Living Wage campaign at Harvard? What were the goals of the campaign,
and what do you think of them?
It’s very difficult to define what is a fair or living wage.
One of the things you see when you go through it is that every group
has a different definition of what it is. I think, in some sense,
in situations that we saw at Harvard where wages are sort of determined
by collective bargaining inside Harvard, clearly there is no one
market wage. There is outside, opportunity market wages, and there’s
then some range of indeterminacy.
One can view the Living Wage as an attempt to raise the bargaining
power of the unions, but I think there are important differences.
We as a society decided that workers have the right to collectively
bargain, and there are certain rules of the game in which they have
that ability to bargain with an employer. If they are able to get
a wage above the outside market level, we consider that legitimate.
The issue here is some of that the United States has introduced,
since the passage of the National Labor Relations Acts in 1935,
many strategies of keeping out unions, and of getting around unions
contracts through the use of out-sourcing. In the case of Harvard,
the situation here was unionized house workers, who had traditionally
earned wages through bargaining, above or below the common denominator
Harvard was following modern management strategies of being able
to use out-sourcing to find, in the case of security guards, non-union
workers and, in the case of janitors, essentially a very weak union
that had a leadership that is actually in jail now to lower the
wages. I think putting pressure on parties to follow the rules of
collective bargaining as probably the intent of the law of 1935
was, although not the actual implementation, a very reasonable approach.
I am much more uncomfortable with some of the Living Wage rhetoric
that everybody ought to be paid a wage that is required to live
in their community. That sounds extremely reasonable from the point
of view of a government intervening-- and that’s exactly what
the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) does, which I think has been
the major social policy advance in the U.S. in the last twenty years.
It basically says different family structures need different incomes,
so we let the labor market pay out and get a reasonable market wage
(with a minimum wage holding at the bottom) and then we add additional
income to families with greater needs.
You’ve suggested that a blanket
Living Wage policy for the Cambridge community should not be the
goal of the Living Wage campaign. What should be the goal, in your
view, of Living Wage campaigns?
I would focus much more on strengthening collective bargaining,
improving the minimum wage at the federal and state level, and expanding
the EITC at federal and state level. I think Living Wage campaigns
are very good at forcing particular employers to strengthen collective
bargaining. They are symbols that unions can take on to say, “If
you don’t treat us respectfully and well in collective bargaining,
here’s a film of what happened at Harvard. Look what we’re
going to do to you in terms of bad publicity.”
But I worry about it at as a stance. We don’t want to chop
up the economy and let a few salient, big employers pay higher wages
because they are visible and you can have a campaign against them,
but everyone else gets left behind because we spend all our energy
on Living Wage campaigns. If progressive individuals spend all their
energy on that and the national minimum wage erodes and the national
EITC erodes, that’s not going to do much good for workers
on average. Workers who get a job at Harvard or for a local government
will do fine, but the vast majority of workers are not going to
be employed there. If those wages grow too far from the rest of
the market, you also have the problem that they will change the
mix of workers. You’ll think you’re helping disadvantaged
minority individuals, but if Harvard pays a wage extremely above
the outside market, they’re going to pick and choose and the
standard discriminatory preferences.
The extent you view this as a symbol that can transfer to other
union settings, it’s good. The extent you that you believe
literally “we’re just going to hit up big vulnerable
employers who are going to cave to publicity,” it is a worrisome
trend. It uses up a lot of energy that would be better used on focusing
on issues like the minimum wage and the EITC. Shifts in the EITC
affect around twenty million households; hitting up on Harvard and
a few other big employers affects a few thousand workers.
In order to end the student sit-in,
the university agreed to freeze out-sourcing and form a committee
to investigate wages and employement on campus. Many students have
told me that committees are simply a way for universities to side-track
students. What, if anything did the committee contribute towards
the goals of the students?
The stated goal of the activists was for the university to adopt
a Living Wage policy. The university certainly didn’t choose
to do that. I think the student activist were rightfully concerned
with another committee, because there had already been a previous
committee, but I think the negotiated settlement between the administration
and the students set up a committee that was much broader than the
previous one. It also had a number of commitments of the university
to re-open collective bargaining agreements.
In the process, the committee learned a lot of facts. I think the
student activism was quite good at pointing out issues that were
not getting attention, and I think the students on the committee
learned a lot and were quite constructive. The students were very
good at being intermediaries for the concerns of the workers.
I think the settlement is well above what the students were actually
demanding in their initial sit-in. They were asking for a $10.25
Cambridge Living Wage level, and the university just settled for
$11.35 to $13 (estimate), and that’s going to go up to $15.00.
In fact, the big problem wasn’t going to be solved by a Living
Wage per se-- those wages are actually pretty low. The parity
wage policy we came up with really got at the core of the
problem: out-sourcing and using out-sourcing to drive down wages.
In contrast, functioning collective bargaining is seen in the latest
What do you think
about the tactics used by the Living Wage campaign at Harvard? Were
the tactics effective from your point of view?
I think the students were quite good at using civil disobedience
to get attention, and quite good at setting forth a set of issues
that a more deliberative process dealt with.
I think some of them have gotten a little out of hand. It’s
a good rallying cry to demonize the opposition, but it doesn’t
lead to necessarily the best substantive policy choices. They had
good ideals and good instincts about what was wrong, but it’s
quite understandable that it was often hard to turn that into practical
suggestions. That is not a big criticism.
I think the biggest problem is if you’ve had a successful
campaign, how do you transition to being a constructive party for
an ongoing relation? How do you move on to another issue, rather
than just move the goal posts?
I think, in fact, the students who were most successful in having
influence in the committee, as in all these processes, are not the
ones who shout slogans the loudest, but were actually the ones who
could engage in what the data were. There were a lot of different
students: some of them were quite serious and quite thoughtful on
those issues, and some spent too much time demonizing the opposition.
I thought those students had much less influence, because whatever
you think of the Harvard administration, you can only say these
people are evil so many times. If they make a concession, taking
nothing on trust is going too far-- so that part lost credibility.
Studnets need to keep their sights on the moral issues, but also
bewilling to talk about the practical analysis.
It’s difficult to sift through the economic data about minimum
wages and living wages, especially when so much research is funded
by commercial enterprises interested in keeping wages low.
[For more information, see: A
Warning: PR "Non-profits".]
It's difficult to separate the
sound economic research from the biased, especially with covert
influence of public relations firms into universities and non-profits.
How can interested students or activists separate the good from
There’s a bunch of junk out there. I think one of the really
important aspects, for example, of the committee was that there
was an attempt to seriously look at the evidence and not just have
slogans or pull up a think tank. In fact, even many of the student
Living Wage activists saw that some of the stuff coming out of the
supposed leading characters of the Living Wage movement didn’t
have a lot of substance behind it. Someone like Alan
Krueger, who does very rigorous work, had a lot more influence
on the process. He’s done very serious work on these process,
versus people from advocacy groups, who you just went into the logic
of what they were doing and a lot of it didn’t hold up.
If you want to be a serious activist who wants to be taken seriously
and objectively think, I think there is a case for seriously learning
some statistics. To be an active citizen, there are some fundamental
things one has to know about statistical inference, about data,
understanding how the data’s put together, and a little bit
of economic and other social science theory. I think having more
training, better knowledge, and not being afraid of numbers and
getting dirty with the data is quite important-- otherwise you will
be driven by popular press interpretations. I think this is true
whether you are an activist or a journalist: you can say all economists
are evil and that statistics can lie, you’re never going to
be able to do a good job unless you can actually understand and
think about the data.
Do you have any
other advice for the students working on Living Wage campaigns elsewhere?
Advice number one is do your homework. The more knowledgeable one
is about the actual facts of what happened the better. How do wages
at this institution compare to other places? What are the trends
in the labor market? What’s the history? In the initial stages,
you can do a bit of sort of chanting. There are different roles.
But I think it's important to do one’s homework, be engaged
in the hard work of coming up with a constructive solution, and,
importantly, to know when to declare victory.
If you make progress, there’s a part where you need to move
on to other issues, or you need to set up some institutional way
of dealing with more collaborative activity. And it may not be that
the same people are good at all these things: it is not clear that
the best rabble-rousers are going to be the best at implementing
plans, and that’s important. Once one has a victory at one
place, think about how to channel it to others. Fighting the last
war continuously is probably not the right strategy.