What were the ambitions of the
Harvard living wage campaign (PSLM)
when you joined in fall 2000? How did the decision to stage the
sit-in come about?
When I joined in the Fall of 2000, the group was still meeting
with the administration. They had had one big rally where Matt Damon
and Ben Affleck came. We were planning rallies, holding teach-in’s,
trying to circulate information, and leaf-letting events.
At that point, actually, there was sort of a lull. That first semester
was sort of a crisis place for the campaign: we weren’t really
getting anywhere. It was really hard to organize workers and convince
them to feel like this was a meaningful thing. Workers were really
fatalistic about their situation, or they were dealing with really
messed up internal union politics. Faculty members were supportive,
but they can’t be relied on as organizers or people to be
organized. They sort of scatter. So it wasn’t clear what the
Then in January or so, we started talking about something really
big and radical, something to shake the university out of its torpor
and force it to take action. So were like,
“How about a really big rally?!”
“No, no, no....”
“How about we take over a building?!”
“No, no, no. That’s crazy. We’ll just alienate
“Maybe, maybe, we’ll form a link around Massachusetts
Hall and link arms and not leave?”
“No, no, no.”
Clearly we wanted to do something big, so we decided to have a
rally. So we had one in March 2001 that we totally didn’t
organize for, and we still got out 150, maybe 250 people. When we
realized that there was sort of latent support on campus, we began
to wonder, "How much more there would be if we did something
that was worth going to?"
After a certain point, the idea of a sit-in began to emerge as
the obvious but very unfortunate solution. Nobody wanted to do it.
It is one of those things where the group decides something, yet
everybody hates the idea. Just this sense of inevitability: we have
to do a sit-in because there’s nothing else to do.
The strength to do the sit-in came from our group. You know how
this works: one person with a strongly held moral conviction can
be strengthened by similar senses in other people. We had all been
thinking about this for so long, and very actively reflecting on
it and discussing all the issues involved: the practical ones, the
philosophical ones, and so on. It was pretty clear that we all reached
a point that was sufficient for each of us, individually, to take
this step. There were so many people who wanted to go in who couldn’t
go for various reason. There were seventy or eighty people willing
to go in. In the end, fifty people went in. Twenty-six people held
out for all 21 days of the sit-in.
The sit-in ended when the university agreed to re-open all the
contracts. That was good because it was clear that the unions were
going to negotiate much better with all the evidence behind them.
And they did: they got really good contracts. They also agreed to
a moratorium on contracting, and we got this committee [the HCECP].
The committee didn’t really meet the Living Wage Campaign’s
and worker’s demands, but they were still a major improvement.
Doing the sit-in, and seeing what a success it was-- despite the
university’s rhetoric throughout of “this is coercive,
what we need is dialogue”-- it made me realize what a lot
of bullshit that was.
Why do you feel like dialogue was
no longer worth pursuing?
The Harvard Corporation is seven corporate magnates-- people with
whom I don’t put a lot of trust in the power of dialogue.
I think that their rhetoric of dialogue is totally hypocritical
when the university has stopped being willing to meet with us. That’s
the indication that dialogue is bullshit. We didn’t have a
dialogue—what we had was a series of meetings with the administrations
that were intended to mollify or divert student energy into a void
of counter-productive “further research,” or “alternatives.”
I don’t believe that dialogue is possible with a university
whose interests are so clearly entrenched with the maintenance of
the status-quo. I truly, truly spent many anguished months seeking
to be disproven. It’s not fun to be engaged in a power-play
with an extremely powerful university—okay, that’s not
true, it’s sort of heady, but it’s also scary; it’s
I don’t believe in dialogue because we’re not speaking
on equal terms. A dialogue between you and me is one thing—presumably,
we’re both open to the other’s feelings and the other’s
views. Neither have us has power or control over the other.
Would it be right to say that dialogue
doesn’t work in this situation because your perspectives,
as students, don’t have any weight with the university?
I would say that, but I would also say it’s sounds like a
dangerous principle to assert. If we’re allowed to do a sit-in
because we are not being responded to or having our demands met,
can any group stage a sit-in? I think what gave the sit-in its moral
validity was the enormous support from the community. Without that,
it would be hard to justify. I mean, that and being willing to accept
the consequences of an action against an institution.
What has this experience taught
you about power relations? Has it changed your concepts of power
or made it more concrete?
Definitely. I really believe it now. Before, the theory that the
university represents a body of class interests was sort of a sexy,
appealing, radical theory-- but it never was internalized so much
as it has been since them. I saw what they responded to was an assault
on their reputation, the “tent city” and its symbol
of a populist movement growing in the yard like a fungus. That’s
the first thing they wanted to go: “Just take down the tent
city. Just take it down, stop having rallies; ther are too many
people, too many weird people, too many people with no affiliation
with Harvard." (Other than Harvard owns everything in Cambridge
and they have to deal with it.)
Harvard wanted to put out this fire of class mobilization that
was starting up with Massachusetts Hall as its epicenter. The entire
activist community made Cambridge its base for those few weeks.
It was so exciting, it was really inspiring. I had never seen such
diversity of people, and I’m sure Harvard Yard will never
see such diversity of people again for quite some time.
Harvard Yard was not meant to have these tents in it. It was an
assault on the symbol of Harvard, and wasa symbol that got projected
all around the country. The news cameras loved this tent city and
all these people in the yard-- really weird looking people, people
you usually don’t see walking through Harvard Yard. We really
struck at the core, not even at first meaning to, of what Harvard
was about. To defend this principle of separation, they had to concede
something. While it is not a concession that would kill them, it’s
a major concession for the worker groups. It was worth it to them.
What advice do you
have for students choosing and adopting campaign goals and wage
In terms of what other students need to know, know that you are
not going to get what you ask for. That’s important. The universities
have an entrenched interest in paying their workers as little as
possible. Any way they can do that, and minimize the damage to their
reputation that you will do, they will use. I don’t doubt
Second, you just sort of have to pick numbers that are just in
the first place. Our choosing the Cambridge Living Wage and pitching
that as a moral standard was a very effective rhetorical tactic,
but it didn’t describe reality. The difference between the
$9.00 they were making and the $10.25 we were calling for was not
the difference between an immoral and a moral state of the world.
That was a false juxtaposition that we set up. It came back to haunt
us when janitors were asking for $14.00 an hour and everyone was
horrified. It's an interesting lesson: make sure that you’re
supporting workers in their demands, and not putting forth demands
As Ed Childs [Harvard staff leader] says, “It’s a struggle.”
It’s always a struggle. It seems to me you’re not going
to get just wages for service workers in a single campaign or in
a single twelve month period of time. And that’s really frustrating.
That’s been part of my radicalization, realizing that $10.25
isn’t enough, that $14.00 isn’t enough: that isn’t
a just state of the world. So I’ve stopped looking at it teleologically.
I see my activism more as an ongoing, never-ending process.
Do you ever feel
like you’re working against the "way the world works"?
That raising wages just won’t work in this market system?
No. I don’t feel like that at all. I think what I’m
doing is part of the way the world works. What I’m doing is
what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m a part of the world.
I really do see myself and the movement I’m in as essential
in shaping the world, and weclearly are. I feel very rooted in reality.
More than ever.
An activist at Brown told
me his first piece of advice was to watch the Harvard campaign.
What are you doing right?
Building coalitions. A movement for workers can’t happen
without workers and it can’t happen without community support.
Often you do see students trying to do it without workers. It’s
funny: a lot of people come to this by learning about Rawls or whatever
in some class and they get these ideas of justice. They are like,
“Maybe people at the bottom of the ladder should be higher
up. Maybe they should be paid enough to spend some time with their
kids.”And they go off and start a campaign to make that happen
and sort of assume that the workers will play as little of an active
role as they have before.
That’s a really flawed, problematic approach and one that’s
destined for failure or at least partial failure. Because the most
important part of this, in my view, is worker empowerment. The assault
isn’t of a purely economic nature, it’s also an assault
on dignity. What we’re fighting for here is one another’s
dignity. The work you do, the process of doing it, must be one that
respects dignity and recognizes the fundamental equality that exists.
It’s this word that gets tossed around irreverently: solidarity,
which I think is an extremely powerful concept.
There is the argument that what students do here is patronizing.
But you have to recognize the reality of the power that students
have. Students need to recognize and do what they can to share power,
access, resources, knowledge, and all the things that they have.
It’s not enough for students to go to into office hours and
talk a lot about how workers need to be paid more and how workers
need a voice on campus. What they should be doing is asking workers
if they want to come office hours, even though office hours aren’t
for workers-- or maybe there should be office hours for workers.
And the only way that idea gets introduced is when workers and students
Workers need to help of students and the validity and legitimacy
that they can offer in front of an administration, and in return,
students get the legitimacy of working with workers- the legitimacy
that the demands are real. A real good elucidation of these principles
is on the United
Students Against Sweatshops website. Check out the principles
How did we know that using the press was going to be an effective
tactic? I mean, we had to think about where we had power. We clearly
aren’t going to use physical force, we were not going to try
to wrestle President Rudenstine to the ground and twist his arm
until he agreed to a living wage. But we could do that metaphorically
through public shaming. I mean, what else do we have but the moral
impact of the issue? What can you appeal to beside a basic sense
of justice? There isn’t really much else.