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Hunger Strike at Harvard
For nine days, from May 3, when 11 students initiated a hunger strike as part of their Stand for Security Campaign, until May 11, when the 9 remaining strikers received bowls of soup from custodian Arit Alasti, Harvard Yard and the surrounding Cambridge community were stirred by the rallies, speeches, marches, chants, and commitment of these students and their supporters. The Stand for Security Campaign aimed to pressure the Harvard administration to honor its own Wage and Benefit Parity Policy (WBPP), which mandates that the university require vendors to pay outsourced workers wages commensurate to those earned by directly hired employees. The campaign claimed that the Harvard administration had failed to guarantee that outsourced security guards working for AlliedBarton receive the same wages earned by in-house service workers and had failed to support these workers just efforts to improve their livelihood through a collective bargaining process.
With the end of the academic year fast approaching and AlliedBarton stalling in their negotiation with security guards and walking away from the bargaining table on May 3, members of the Stand for Security Coalition moved to put moral pressure on the university by staging a very visible hunger strike in support of the workers. More concretely, the Coalition presented four specific demands: an increase in wages for security guards, from $12.68 to $15 an hour; regular full-time hours; recognition of union membership; and a fair grievance procedure.
The current struggle for fair wages at Harvard has an antecedent in the Living Wage Campaign of 2001, which gained national notoriety when 53 students sat-in Massachusetts Hall for 21 days. The subsequent agreement (conceded by the university and negotiated by an AFL-CIO lawyer because the Administration refused to negotiate with students) failed to provide a minimum living wage for all campus workers. Nevertheless, it allowed for a six-month moratorium on the outsourcing of jobs and renegotiated the contract of 650 janitors, making retroactive any agreement to May 1, 2001.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the compromise was that the agreement did not affect subcontracted labor, most particularly the security guards, which Harvard had been outsourcing since 1992. Beginning in 1996, when in-house security guards formed the HUSPMG Union, the Administration aggressively bought out guards with severance packages as part of an effective union busting campaign. By 2007, according to the Stand for Security Campaign, the majority of union guards had been replaced by subcontracted labor and the union, for all practical purposes, had lost its bargaining power with Harvard.
The 2001 agreement also established the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies to discuss, debate, and make recommendations regarding issues of wages at the university. This committee, headed by Professor Lawrence Katz, included ten faculty members, two undergraduate and two graduate students, two senior administrators, and three union employees representing the janitors of SEIU Local 254, the dining workers of HERE Local 26, and the clerical workers of HUCTW. The findings and recommendations of the committee, presented to the university community in 2001, were, not surprisingly, promptly ignored and the report languished on the shelves until 2004 when student and faculty pressure forced the Harvard administration to adopt the Wage and Benefit Parity Policy (WBPP). The WBPP, adopted by Harvard after 26 students occupied the office of the president for three weeks, outlines ways to prevent the university from using outsourcing to lower wages. Specifically, the policy restricts outsourcing to increase quality and innovation, not to adversely affect the wages and benefits of Harvards own service employees.
In 2004 outsourced custodians working for Harvards main security contractor, AlliedBarton, began a union organizing campaign in an attempt to bring their wages up to parity with market rates for security officers. AlliedBarton, one of the largest security firms in the country, opposed the security guards effort to unionize, forcing guards to work without a contract. By 2005, the student movement at Harvard was re-energized by its participation in the Justice for Janitors Campaign, and the Progressive Student Labor Movement, the group that led the Living Wage Campaign of 2001, was re-launched as the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM). It was then that, according to SLAM member Lucy McKinnon, SEIU Local 615, the union representing Harvard custodians, essentially brought the campaign to the students.
Early in the summer of 2006 SLAM students met with Harvards vice-president of labor relations, Marilyn Hausammann, to discuss the need for Harvard to take a stance in favor of card checks, a method of organizing employees into a labor union supported by the recently passed Employee Free Choice Act. As soon as classes started in 2006, SLAM initiated a student card check drive to increase awareness about card checks on campus and to support the custodians union organizing efforts. By the late Fall, students formed the Stand for Security Coalition that included SLAM, the Black Mens Forum, the College Democrats, the Harvard Advocates for Human Rights, and the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice. A massive rally that brought 100 security officers, students, and community supporters to the Holyoke Center, site of the Harvard Office of Labor Relations, put enough pressure on AlliedBarton to sign, on November 16, 2006, a card check agreement with SEIU Local 615. Card checks began in earnest and by the end of December 2006 outsourced security officers working for AlliedBarton were officially members of SEIU.
Union representation, however, did not guarantee fair treatment from AlliedBarton. In fact, the Stand for Security Campaign documented several instances of unfair labor practices, including the firing of 4 guards because of their union organizing, misclassifying 32 guards as managers to keep them out of the union, and an increase in the disciplinary citations of guards active in the unionizing campaign. After months of stalled negotiations, Harvards reluctance to assume what students consider the universitys responsibility, and AlliedBartons decision to walk away from the bargaining table, SLAM and the Stand for Security Coalition responded by initiating a hunger strike on May 3.
The Hunger Strike
Student Kelly Lee explained the decision to go on a hunger strike: We felt that we were under a time crunch, with the end of the semester approaching, and so we decided to use a strategy that would put pressure on the Administration. At the same time we wanted to make more visible the suffering workers have to endure. SLAM students hoped that their action would meet the success of the University of Miami janitors and students, who in 2006 fasted for 17 days to win a 34 percent wage increase for campus workers; or that of the nine Stanford University students who went on a hunger strike in April 2007 to win a living wage for all university workers.
The hunger strike and the efforts of the Stand for Security Coalition were not universally supported at the university. A column in the Harvard Crimson (May 9, 2007) opined that, Its hard not to feel as though the real point of the protest is masturbatory. After all, a hunger strike is not just a publicity stunt, but a good way to transform a question of audits and technicalities into something worth sacrifice. A hunger strike information packet put out by the Coalition addressed many of the questions and issues raised by the university community regarding their use of this strategy. On the day that the negative column appeared in the campus paper, student Austin Guest addressed supporters in front of Loeb Hall during their daily rally and asked their critics to stop looking at our tactics and start looking at the conditions workers face on a daily basis. Look at how much custodians earn. Workers cant live on $12.68.
The conditions faced by workers were also featured in the Coalitions information packet where an anonymous worker explained that working at Harvard is a struggle because of low wages that have taken a challenging toll on my life. Another worker, Najeeb Hussain, complained that he has been forced to endure undesirable working conditions imposed by AlliedBarton, and hoped that AlliedBarton and Harvard will respect the civil rights of its employees to form a union without fear and intimidation. On the seventh day of the hunger strike the security guards bargaining team addressed a rally in front of Loeb Hall. At the rally on May 9, security guard Milton Scope declared, The strike has made an extreme difference, because the contractor was just going in circles. It is only now that they are trying to seriously sit down at the negotiating table. Custodian Mike Gallagher praised the students: We cant tell you how much we appreciate your efforts. You are an inspiration to us.
The students involved in the Stand for Security Coalition understand the difficulty of developing worker-student solidarity and assumed this work with humility and insight. Hunger striker Alyssa Aguilera, a Mexican-American student experienced in community organizing, conceded that students are not leading the fight, but thinks that there should be a collaboration between workers and students because we have things to offer them and they have things to offer us, and united we have a stronger front. She conceives her activism in terms of organizing her community of students at Harvard and views her support of campus workers as a way to help them obtain higher wages, but also as a means to help members of her community and herself understand bigger systemic issues that are at the root of the problems we see here, such as, why are the majority of these workers immigrants or people of color and why are privileged students so distant and removed from workers.
African-American striker Kelly Lee explained that there is a divide between students and workers at Harvard, but feels that these campaigns do a lot to force the recognition of the oppressive conditions experienced by some members of our community . There are freshman students, she added, who are talking to workers, who never talked to workers before, and there are groups like SLAM that are set up to offer solidarity and support to the struggles of workers in our community. This sort of alliance is very important.
Participation of the university community in the activities of the Coalition grew rapidly. On the second day of the strike the Harvard Democrats organized a one-day solidarity fast. By the sixth day of the strike the Black Students Association, the Black Men Forum, the Association of Black Harvard Women, the South Asian Women Collective, and Activate South Asia endorsed the largest Coalition rally, attended by more than 300 people. On the seventh day the guards bargaining team joined the Coalition rally in front of Loeb Hall to report on the status of negotiations. On the same day the Stand for Security blog announced that the parents of hunger striker Claire Provost were holding a fast in solidarity with their daughter and in support of the security officers.
The end of the hunger strike was an emotional experience for the participants and was brought about by a request from the security officers concerned with the health of the students. Custodians felt that at that point the hunger strike was unnecessary given the concessions from the university and the return of Allied- Barton to the negotiating table. The concessions included not using out- sourcing to lower wages and weaken unions and supporting due grievance process and fair treatment, and were outlined in an open letter by Marilyn Hausammann to the Stand for Security Coalition. In addition, according to the Crimson (May 11, 2007), students asked for the formation of an independent committee of workers, students, faculty, and administrators to provide a short-term assessment of AlliedBartons wages and benefits on campus.
Lessons of the Campaign
The Coalition forged by SLAM helped to mobilize a segment of the Harvard student body: 26 organizations became part of the Stand for Security Coalition and more than 1,800 people signed their petition. Further, the group sustained well-attended afternoon rallies and evening vigils, in which students, faculty, workers, and the occasional parent participated, and an untold number of supporters committed to daily fasting. One of the objectives of the action, articulated by hunger striker Alyssa Aguilera, of educating, organizing, and helping to transform my community of students, took a great leap forward. Hunger strikers, nevertheless, acknowledge the tension between their commitment to a more profound transformation of what they consider an unjust social system, and their involvement and support of the workers most immediate needs.
There are a number of lessons that can be drawn from the Stand for Security Campaign. First, tactics are most successful when they match the needs of the campaign. Striker Kelly Lee explained their particular situation at Harvard: The issue was that the workers won the union late last semester and the bargaining didnt begin till early this semester, so there wasnt that much time to get many students involved. We needed a tactic that could leverage a lot of power in very little time, so that meant getting a lot of media attention, getting a lot of support, and getting people outraged. We also wanted a tactic that would allow us to make visible the suffering of the guards who dont have the privilege to make their suffering visible because people with privilege ignore them every day. We could use our bodies in that way because we dont have to work every day. We cannot get fired. All we have to do is finals, and we could do that while we were hungry.
Second, student organizations are short lived and need to be renewed. Striker Alyssa Aguilera explained the recent history of the student-labor movement at Harvard: There was a group before SLAM; that was the Progressive Student Labor Movement, the group that carried out the 2001 occupation of Mass Hall, and I was involved with them during my freshman year in 2004, but it was very small and people were mostly involved in contract negotiations, so we used that time to develop our organizing skills. We did a big re-launch of our group, which we renamed SLAM, in the Fall of 2005, coinciding with the Justice for Janitors Campaignthe janitors on campus were re-negotiating their contract, and that was when SLAM took off. In this context, she explains that, there are people who dont usually come to protests but are open-minded and they come to our events and see how much the Administration doesnt respond, how much these workers really need this, and how organizing and activism can be a means to that. Hopefully this politicizes some people and we contribute to the growth of the student labor movement.
Third, campaigns can be successfully built around the limited successes of previous struggles. The Harvard Living Wage Campaign of 2001 ended with a compromise agreement that did not guarantee a living wage for all workers and only conceded a limited wage increase. Even the formation of the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies, commonly known as the Katz Committee, was considered compromised because of the limited voice granted to workers and students. It is significant, then, to understand that the recommendations generated by this committee set the stage for the adoption of the Wage and Benefit Parity Policy by the Harvard administration, and the justification for the Stand for Security Campaigns demand that the university respect and enforce its own written policies. In this context, it is interesting to note the extent to which limited institutional changes can have a larger impact than the dramatic actions necessary to bring them into existence.
Lastly, the recent history of the student labor movement at Harvard demonstrates the need for students, workers, and community supporters to pressure institutions to fulfill their social responsibility. The Stand for Security Campaign and the hunger strike that ended on May 11, 2007 was the students way to ensure that their university honors its own policy. It is not surprising that at the end of the hunger strike, and in spite of reassuring statements and letters from the Harvard administration, the students insisted on keeping up the pressure. In a post in the Stand for Security blog, Kaveri Rajaraman called for the community to move to the next phase of the struggle. In a Crimson article (May 11) announcing the end of the strike, Claire Provost called for the formation of an independent committee of workers, students, faculty, and administrators that would build on the Katz Committee, but would have stronger implementation mechanisms. The yearning for a more democratic university could be surmised from her statement that the committee was another step forward to have institutional accountability.
Carlos Suárez-Boulangger is a political activist and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Z Magazine Archive
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