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
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.