Hunger Strike at Harvard
Elite students fast for the watchmen
by Franziska Badenschier, Cambridge
[translated by Alexandra Bush of SLAM]
They provide for security on the “Nobel-Campus”, but they are refused financial security: at the richest university in the world, the security staff receive only a starvation wage. Now Harvard students are protesting for them – with a hunger strike.
The “last meal” was anything but a heavenly repast: there were soggy bagels with egg salad, bean burritos and turkey sandwiches for the eleven Harvard students before they began the hunger strike. In the coming days they will get only water, tea, and juice. “We’ll eat nothing until the university’s leadership listens to us,” says Michael, a student of politics.
[PHOTO CAPTION: HARVARD REBELS: STARVING AGAINST STARVATION WAGES]
“Mister President, Mr. Bok, feed your workers, feed your students,” the students call as Derek Bok walks by the group; Bok is the interim president until Harvard’s first female president takes office in June. He remains silent and walks on – day one of the hunger strike.
Michael, Kyle, Matthew and co. want to get by without food for at least nine days. But the hunger strike could last even longer. The food-refusers want to keep going to their classes as long as possible. A doctor has given them the “okay”.
An equal earnings level – under the living wage
A week ago, members of the student campaign “Stand for Security” already went one day without eating, in order to advocate for Harvard’s security guards. “Ask me why I’m fasting” was written on a t-shirt printed for this day of protest. Other students held up empty paper plates or signs with the inscription “Security begins with justice”.
Acccording to the students’ statements, the security guards earn $12.67/hr – not even ten Euros. “That’s not enough to survive in Boston,” says Javier, who is protesting alongside his fellow students. Even so, Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the United States – if not the most expensive. In a letter to Derek Bok, the students demanded that the university guarantee five standards in all labor contracts: fair wages, secure full-time jobs, a safe and clean workplace, due process, and the right to organize.
But this is not so simple: the security officers are not directly employed by the university, but rather by AlliedBarton, one of the largest security personnel firms in the USA. According to Lary Rubin, the firm’s spokesperson, they are currently in negotiations with the recently established security officers’ union. There, it’s about the “whole package” with wages and benefits, such as health insurance, says Rubin. About 250 security guards are affected, all of whom provide for safety on Harvard’s property.
The University doesn’t consider itself responsible
“The negotiations are AlliedBarton’s business, not Harvard’s,” university spokesperson Jim Wrinn told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But at the same time, the university has a contract with the security firm and likes to refer to its Wage Parity Policy: people who work for the university, but are not directly employed by the university, are supposed to earn just as much as direct university employees.
According to Wrinn, in this case the policy concerns guards at Harvard-run museums. According to his own statement, Wrinn does not know how much the security officers from AlliedBarton earn, nor whether the company is fulfilling this obligation.
A few years ago, a union of internal Harvard security officers negotiated an hourly wage of $13-$14 per hour, says Austin Guest of “Stand for Security.” But he says even they didn’t get paid – with the veiled threat that it could be cheaper with AlliedBarton.
But with all of this, Harvard is the wealthiest university in the world. In spite of that fact, at the turn of the millenium everything that could be outsourced, was. Some custodial staff, dining hall workers, and other personnel didn’t even get $10 an hour.
“They should be working, not talking”
Already in 2001, these problems caused dozens of Harvard students to occupy the main administrative building and set up tents on campus. With their “Living Wage” campaign, the students (whom many otherwise like to malign as elite, snooty upstarts) put proper pressure on their university and received significant support from the ranks of unions and politicians. After three weeks the university made concessions and the students pulled back. It quickly became an example, as Stanford students also rebelled against social injustices at their own university.
Now Harvard students are fighting for their protectors, 12,000 [sic] people have already signed the petition. “We’re the first people in the buildings. As long as our jobs aren’t secure, we can’t effectively protect the university,” says a security officer as cited in the daily publication “Boston now”. He demands – like his colleagues and the participating students – higher wages and job security. Since the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton eight years ago and since 9/11, the situation on campus is tense. The massacre at Virginia Tech two weeks ago isn’t making the situation any better.
But the security officers at Harvard aren’t permitted to speak about the shooting, in which gunman Cho Seung Hui shot 32 people, seriously wounded many more and finally killed himself. “They should be working, not talking,” is the curt justification of the AlliedBarton spokesperson.