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

Madeleine Elfenbein
Student Activist, Harvard University

Interview Questions:
How did the decision to stage the massive sit-in come about?
Why was dialogue with the administration no longer worth pursuing?
Does dialogue not work because the university doesn't give student voices weight?
Has this experience changed the way you think about power relations in general?
What advice do you have for students choosing campaign goals and wage levels?
Do you ever feel like you're working against the "way the world works"?
What made the Harvard campaign so successful?


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 direction was.

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 people.”
“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 really scary.

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 levels?

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 that.

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 for them.

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 demand it.

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 of unity.

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.

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
Feedback welcome
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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.