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Harvard Students Stage Labor Sit-in

Students Take over Building, Demand Living Wage of $10.25 for All Employees


Nearly 50 members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) began a sit-in at Massachusetts Hall at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, planning to remain indefinitely in the administrative building to demand a living wage of at least $ 10.25 per hour for all Harvard employees.

PSLM members said their protest -- strategically located in the building housing the office of University President Neil L. Rudenstine -- also demands that the University join the Worker’s Rights Consortium, an independent factory monitoring board.

Student activists -- mostly undergraduates, with about a dozen graduate students -- entered the building easily from the basement of Matthews Hall, armed with bags of food and tanks of water.

They secured themselves in the halls of the building by linking arms while singing, chanting and reading testimony from Harvard workers.

By 5 p.m. Wednesday, all administrators with offices in the building had trickled out of Mass. Hall -- leaving only protesters and Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) officers to occupy the building.

Rudenstine exited Mass. Hall at approximately 4 p.m. and Provost Harvey V. Fineberg left unobtrusively an hour later. Both administrators declined comment as they walked through the shouting crowds from the building.

About six HUPD members remained in the building throughout the afternoon, while another several spread out, monitoring the crowds outside.

At least four police cars parked in the Yard outside Mass. Hall.

While the protesters inside the building alternated between chanting and quietly playing cards, about 30 students circled Mass. Hall under the leadership of PSLM member Amy C. Offner.

The action outside the building began after Offner, speaking into a megaphone, rallied a crowd of onlookers that included members of national media like National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times.

“A sit-in has begun in Mass. Hall for a living wage for all Harvard workers,” Offner announced.

Offner said both the students inside and those outside the administrative building would not budge until their demands were granted.

“We’re committed to remaining here indefinitely,” she said. “We're expecting stiff resistance from the University.”

As the afternoon progressed, the students outside the administrative building seemed to be settling down for the duration.

Two students stood outside Mass. Hall, holding a large banner reading, “Workers Can’t Eat Prestige: Rally for a Living Wage,” made from three blue sheets strong across wooden poles.

As students circled the small green outside Mass. Hall, they attracted the attention of a group of alums from the Class of 1971 walking through the Yard.

The alums compared Wednesday’s action to the legendary sit-in of 1969, saying that they were excited and rather surprised to see continuing evidence of student activism.

Despite the ostensible similarities, the climate on campus was radically different 30 years ago, said Allyn Field.

“In our time, it was total chaos. There were demonstrations like this all the time,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience.”

As he talked, Field watched the students circling outside Mass. Hall.

“I remember tear gas and windows being smashed. It was a war zone,” he said. “It’s all really hard to picture now.”

About six members of Harvard’s Facilities Maintenance Organization joined the students marching outside the building.

They said they were hopeful about the action’s success.

“I think it’ll work,” one worker said as he marched. “It’s worked in the past.”

As the sun set and the wind began to pick up, Offner urged the onlookers not to leave despite the increasingly inclement weather.

“We need to help protect the students inside who are taking a major risk for a piece of justice in our community,” she said, eliciting cheers from the audience.

“It’s terrible that it has come to this,” she said. “These are terrible problems and we’re committed to staying out here to fix them.”

In an attempt to link the groups of protesters outside and inside the building, Offner hooked her cell phone up to a microphone so that Molly C. McOwen could speak to the assembled crowd.

As she spoke, McOwen stood in the front window of Mass. Hall and waved wildly at the onlookers.

“Our voices are hoarse and sore but it makes us feel so much more empowered to hear you guys out there,” she said.

After a candlelight vigil held at 9:00 p.m. Wednesday night, the crowd outside Mass. Hall quieted.

The lights inside Mass. Hall illuminated the colorful living wage posters taped to the windows of the administrative building.

While HUPD officers continued to stand outside the building, about two dozen students chatted casually with their friends on the inside through the open Mass. Hall windows -- discussing dinner and the Mass. Hall decor.

Offner said that PSLM members had organized a schedule for students to remain outside throughout the night.

She said continuing support from the outside was necessary for the safety of the protesters.

“We heard a threat of a police bust and so it’s really important to make sure people are out here,” she said.

At midnight, after a few hours of quiet protest, the students both inside and outside Mass. Hall began yelling. The activists inside the building turned on their radios and began clapping and banging on wastebaskets. The supporters outside yelled, “No justice, no quiet!”

The brief escalation came after a HUPD officer moved into a room inside Mass. Hall that the students had unofficially designated a “safe space” for discussion and planning.

The rising volume of the protesters began to antagonize Mass. Hall residents. At one point, a few students attempted to pour water on the protesters from their open window.

After about 20 minutes of shouting from both inside and outside the administrative building, the students quieted for a brief meeting with the HUPD officers, who agreed to vacate the conference room. With that, the protesters resolved to go to sleep for the night.

(By Daniela J. Lamas -- The Harvard Crimson, 04/19/01)