Hunger Strike at Harvard



F
or 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 Harvard’s own service employees.” 



In 2004 outsourced custodians working for Harvard’s 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 Harvard’s 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 Men’s 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, Harvard’s
reluctance to assume what students consider the university’s responsibility,
and AlliedBarton’s 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, “It’s 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 can’t live on $12.68.” 



The conditions faced by workers were also featured in the Coalition’s 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 can’t 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 AlliedBarton’s 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 didn’t begin till early this semester, so there wasn’t
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 don’t 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 don’t 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 Campaign—the 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 don’t usually come to protests but
are open-minded and they come to our events and see how much the Administration
doesn’t 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 Campaign’s 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.” 



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Carlos Suárez-Boulangger is a political activist and writer living in Cambridge,
Massachusetts.