Campus Living Wage Project

Interviews

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

ACORN
Jen Kern

Stanford University
Anna Mumford [to come]

Colorado College
Kai Stinchombe [to come]

Interested in being interviewed?

Page: Interview

Roona Ray & Amy Offner
Student Activists, Harvard University

Interview Questions:
What has made the Harvard campaign so successful?
Do you have any other advice for student activists elsewhere?

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The gains and attention the Harvard living wage campaign has achieved are impressive. What has made the campaign at Harvard so successful?

Roona: We don’t have any secrets. The work we do is similar to what has been done by the United Students Against Sweatshops across the country and living wage movements across the country.

Amy: One thing that we always tried to do was to involve as many constituencies as possible, and design actions that could tap involvement of different groups of people. For instance, we had alumni pledging that they would never give money to Harvard if they didn’t agree to a living wage. We also got alumni involved in the sit-in, alumni went into the building, and so on.

Many times faculty members don’t know how to involve themselves in a community campaign: they feel awkward, they are used to sitting in their offices, and think they are going to lose credibility with their colleagues if they are seen at a rally. So we had to find ways to get the faculty involved. They did all sorts of things, from meeting with administrators to collecting faculty petitions, to publishing a full-page ad in the Boston Globe.

They also did their own forms of direct action that we gave them ideas for. So we had professors go up to the building during the sit-in and saying “Well, you know, my job is to teach students, and I think it’s a real shame that the students inside can’t attend their classes. So I’d like to go in and teach them class.” Police officers would gather in front of the door and block professors from entering the building which became a spectacle and embarrassment. And so then we’d have these events where professors would stand outside the buildings and deliver courses to the students inside. So they found ways of being involved.

That’s the power of getting tenured faculty involved—the can’t really be reprimanded. President Rudenstine and an extremely right-wing dean called a special faculty meeting in which they really hoped to put out the fire. We called together some faculty (they were meeting regularly at this point) and helped prepared them for this meeting. So every faculty member that spoke—with perhaps one exception— spoke in support of the living wage and in support of the sit-in. Rudenstine and the dean were so obviously defeated in this meeting that they never called another faculty meeting during the sit-in. And they needed the faculty, but they had lost them.

Some of the other ways we tried to involve constituencies were that we had events that worked different parts of the community. We had “Labor Night” where all the unions in Massachusetts that wanted to participate could come and have their own rally. We had the Boston area FTAA rally at Harvard during the Living Wage sit-in. So all the Boston globalization activist got involved. The Black Student Association had its own teach-in in front of the building. There was an event happening in Boston in support of amnesty for immigrant workers, or for immigrants in general. So that day we had, and sort of right after that, a solidarity action in front of the building with the Boston amnesty coalition and some of the people working on ethnic studies at Harvard. So there were different ways that different groups could get involved.

Roona: So I think throughout we tried to give people different opportunities to get involved, at different comfort levels and different skill levels, and try to play on the different talents and strengths that people have. Not everyone is going to be able to go and shake their fist at the President but they can do other things.

I think the other thing we did really well is that from the start we would go to administrators and we’d ask them “Hey, do you know about working conditions on campus?” They would say, “No,” and then we’d tell them and we say, “So we need a living wage. Lots of people think so.” They would be like “Oh, interesting.”

So basically we attempted to have a constructive dialogue through every avenue open to us, regardless of how much we knew or thought that it wouldn’t work. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot in the beginning by going “Oh, evil Administrators!”, even though we know that pretty much they are evil administrators, that they won’t give in and that there is no democratic process for getting decisions made at the university.

In order to prove the need for more forceful action, you sort of need to go through the motions. Leave a paper trail, basically, of talking to administrators, having those dialogues, writing the letters you need to, and being turned away at every turn. We have a particularly stubborn administration, so it was very predictable for us to send thousands upon thousands of names and have them refused. When it came time for the sit-in, people who have more faith than we do in the powers that be were like, “But this is our administration. I’ve talked to these people, I’ve worked with these people for over twenty years and I can’t believe they are doing this.” Then we’d shown them our documentation of how we’d gone and sat and talked to them, that workers had gone and talked with them, that unions had written them letters, that all these different people had gone and talked to them, and they still hadn’t moved on this seemingly simple and moral issue. So it brought a lot of legitimacy to that.

A living wage campaign is not just having a sit-in, it’s not just starting a sit-in and saying, “We demand a living wage.” You have to build up to it.

Amy: I guess I would modify what Roona is saying with that meeting with the administration is useful only for rhetorical purposes. That’s the absolute only use that it has. There is no progress. There was none here that could be made, and we knew it from the minute we started. We knew that nothing was going to come from meeting with administrators except that we would be able to say that we had met with them, that we had tried to talk with them and that they refused at every turn. One key to convincing the community that dialogue offers no potential for change was not only demonstrating that we have met them and this is what they’ve done, but showing that not only had they not responded, but they had actually worsened working conditions, consciously and deliberately.

Our understanding really was that Harvard would only change its policy through public embarrassment and pressure it became unsustainable and that was our goal: to publicly humiliate them until they had to agree.

Roona: Doing activism on-campus is a transformative process for most people. Although Amy does say that a lot of people took an oppositional stance from the very beginning, there’s a wide diversity of radicalism and militancy in our campaign, and also people change a lot over the course of doing activism. Within both the public that aren’t so actively involved and those who are actively involved, a lot of people do have faith in administrators and for “rational dialogue” to come to a productive conclusion. But since there’s no democratic process at this university and most private universities and corporations, where stake-holders have the ability to say things and have their opinions make a change, just that moral imperative does very little. The university really has no incentive to follow through on that.

Do you have any other advice for the students working on Living Wage campaigns elsewhere?

Amy: Organizing a political or community campaign isn’t a check-list- there aren’t three steps. It involves being in a particular community, knowing that community, then beginning to think about what are your resources and what are the abilities of the group that can be called on.

Roona: To do community organizing of any sort you need to learn about the diversity of people and talents that you have in that community, and try to engage and use people in their diversity of talents. In engaging the powers that be, really the stance that you need to take is in opposition, because in most places you are not going to be working with a democratic structure. I don’t know if waxing rhetorically is that effective.

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
astone(at)stanford.edu
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.