Friday, May 4, 2007

Why We Are Hunger Striking

Why We Are Hunger Striking

We anticipate that not everyone – not even everyone who supports our demands – will immediately support our hunger strike. We do not wish to overshadow the salience of our claims with controversy over our methods. This hunger strike is meant to unify, not divide; it is meant to improve, not vilify. We need allies, not enemies. In that spirit, we offer the following explanation for our actions.

We expect that this hunger strike will seem abrupt to some students and faculty. For guards, however, this strike is about fifteen years too late.

Harvard has been outsourcing security officers since 1992, lowering wages and denying responsibility. In 1998, students began to call this policy into question by beginning the Living Wage Campaign. In 2001, that campaign came to a head with the 21-day occupation of Massachusetts Hall. In 2001, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP), commissioned in the wake of the Living Wage Campaign, wrote the following:

“Harvard should not use outsourcing to undermine its obligations to be a good employer and to bargain in good faith with its unionized employees…Outsourcing should not be used to lower wages and weaken the unions representing Harvard’s employees.”

Harvard codified these prescriptions in its Wage and Benefits Parity Policy, specifically created to ensure that outsourcing was not being used to lower wages. In 2005, security guards began the struggle to join a union, to ensure that the goals of the Living Wage Campaign and of the Parity Policy could be implemented and enforced. In 2006, the guards won that union and – for the first time in fifteen years – were able to bargain for their own terms of employment.

The Living Wage Campaign forced the question, "Why does the richest university in the world pay poverty wages?" And Harvard answered by accepting its clear responsibility and agreeing to guarantee decent wages and conditions for all workers on this campus - directly hired and outsourced. The University would intervene in the negotiations of all the contractors on this campus and require minimum wage and benefits standards.

Now, Harvard is denying the responsibility it accepted five years ago because of a fight that began ten years ago in response to a problem that started fifteen years ago. We have been meeting with administrators for a year about this issue. We have sent letters, compiled facts and testimonials, gathered petitions and endorsements, held vigils and rallies.

In fifteen years, in ten years, in five years, even in one year, we believe that there is ample time for the Harvard administration to have dealt adequately and ethically with this situation. Instead, they have chosen to ignore and even exacerbate it.

We expect that this hunger strike will seem extreme or unreasonable to some students and faculty. For guards, however, the situation has been extreme for many years now.

We think that a guard being forced to choose between paying his rent and paying for his heart medication is extreme. We think that a guard spending four hours a day commuting rather than with his children because he cannot afford to live closer without moving into public project housing is extreme. We think that the richest university in the world pinching pennies from people who can least afford it is extreme.

Further, we find it unreasonable that members of the Harvard administration who do not subsist on the kinds of wages that security officers earn would presume to know better than they about what a just wage or fair working conditions might be. We find it unreasonable that members of the Harvard administration would claim that the university is not complicit in the practices of the labor contractor that it chooses to hire, and is not responsible for the conditions under which security officers protecting Harvard’s campus are forced to work.

We expect that this hunger strike will seem coercive and disruptive to some students and faculty. Ideally, we would engage with the university administration in a multi-stakeholder approach to campus decision-making that incorporates administrators, faculty, students, workers and other community members. Unfortunately, no such process exists. The only voices on this campus with the right to be heard are those of the President and the Corporation.

The choice that we face is not between, on the one hand, engaging in productive negotiations with the administration and, on the other hand, employing forceful tactics. The former is not an option. Instead, the choice is between, on the one hand, standing by silently as 250 of our friends and protectors are abused in our name, and, on the other hand, standing up loudly to take responsibility for creating a more just Harvard. We do not consider the former an option.

Now, when op-eds have failed, when meetings have failed, when petitions have failed, when rallies and marches have failed, now it is we who are coerced. And, given the choice of the administration to deny us the right to participate in the shaping of our own community, we have chosen the least disruptive or unnecessarily harmful means of “standing up loudly” possible.

We expect that this hunger strike will seem unrelated to our goals to some students and faculty. Through this hunger strike, we hope to physically manifest the severity of the treatment received by security officers. We hope to display on our bodies a pale representation of the pain experienced by a parent who cannot adequately provide for her children. We hope to bring this experience into the sight and into the minds of those here at Harvard who perpetrate and benefit from it. By publicly leveraging our own bodies and lives to make ignoring them impossible, we hope to awaken people to the daily ignorance of the private leveraging of the bodies and lives of officers.

We hope to express the humanity of security officers through our own human suffering. In doing so, we hope to expose the inhumanity of the disregard that we have shown for their suffering for so many years.