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The Mob at Harvard

Matt Craighead

The Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) has unlawfully occupied a Harvard building for almost two weeks, yet Harvard shows no sign of taking forceful and decisive action against them. And while Harvard dallies, the protest picks up steam; the supporters of the PSLM include Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

Harvard students not in the PSLM are split; many students disapprove of the PSLM’s methods, but most appear to approve of its goals. In the meantime, more tents appear on Harvard Yard every day.

The Harvard administration has conceded the moral high ground to the PSLM. Harvard set up and implemented the recommendations of a committee to look at ways to improve the lot of lower-paid Harvard workers. Its recent statements do not attack the PSLM’s aims; they merely beseech the protesters to return to more civilized means of communication.

Harvard need not be so timid. After all, the living wage movement itself is not a moral cause. Wages are a matter of negotiation between private individuals, and work is simply a mutually beneficial transaction. Harvard is free to fire workers, and workers are free to quit their Harvard jobs and find other jobs in Cambridge. No one has a right to a “living wage.”

A living wage is also arbitrary; no one can define exactly what constitutes one. If Harvard workers have a right to $10.25 per hour, why do they not also have a right to $11 per hour, or $20 per hour, or $100 per hour?

Remember that freedom of speech and assembly have boundaries. “Freedom of speech” is not a right to say anything, anywhere, at any time. “Freedom of assembly” is not a right to gather any number of people anywhere, at any time. For instance, you cannot shout death threats at people. Similarly, you cannot use private property without permission. The owner can set terms and conditions for using his property, and he may forcibly remove anyone who violates those conditions. So Harvard has every right to kick the PSLM out.

What do the protesters want? Their demands are not merely for a $10.25 wage and health benefits for Harvard employees.They also have three other major demands.

First, they demand that Harvard not use subcontracting to outsource labor and bypass the living wage.

Second, they want a board to enforce the living wage policy, with binding authority over Harvard (including Harvard’s finances); the board would not be appointed by the administration and would contain workers, union representatives, faculty, members of the PSLM, and “an administrator.”

Finally, they want workers in factories who produce Harvard goods to also be covered by this policy. This is a power grab and an attempt to wrest control of Harvard from the administration.There are no proposed limits on the power of the board or on the level of financial control it could assume.

The administration would only have minimal control over the board, and it would not be able to use other means (such as subcontracting) to work around the board’s arbitrary power. Fundamentally, this is not a debate about the living wage. It is a debate about who runs Harvard -- the administration or a mob.

The mob that is the PSLM is certainly not peaceful. It wasn’t good enough that they have continually plastered the entire campus with their demands. The PSLM has also dumped trash on the statue of John Harvard, broken into offices while secretaries are working and shouted slogans at them, and prevented many administrators from doing their work. Their incessant chanting and rallying are distracting, to say nothing of what the students living in Massachusetts Hall must feel.

The tent encampment on the Yard and the sit-in themselves are well beyond what Harvard should tolerate. The sit-in is also interfering with the purpose of the institution and what these students are at Harvard for in the first place -- learning! Some professors have wasted no time in letting students out of work to participate in the sit-in. This is ridiculous. If students want to get out of their classwork, they should drop out of school.

Simply put, the PSLM is a terrorist group. A terrorist, after all, is a person who uses violence or threats of violence to further a political cause. For example, the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh are terrorists. Some of the recent FTAA protesters could also be considered terrorists. Remember that violence need not involve killing or injuring others.The unlawful use of private property is also a violent act.

Violence is not an acceptable way to resolve political issues in a civilized society. Worse, this is not really a political issue; wages are an issue between Harvard and its employees.

The right way to respond to terrorism is to adopt the stated policy of our government -- the United States does not negotiate with terrorists.This rule can cause hardship; not negotiating may cause innocent people to die. But the alternative is far worse, because giving in shows the world that you are weak and that anyone can bully you around.

Harvard can take a few simple steps to resolve this situation. It should categorically reject all of the demands of the PSLM and the living wage movement. It should officially state that it will never, under any conditions, negotiate with protest movements that disrupt learning, student life, or research. It should then identify and immediately expel, without refund of tuition, the leaders of the PSLM.

Finally, Harvard should immediately send in police to disperse both the camp and the sit-in and authorize the use of any force necessary to do so. Any student who resists should be arrested and jailed.

There can be no compromise on these issues. If Harvard grants a single demand, it will serve as an announcement that it will cave to any group that uses violence to make its point.

This is a battle between right and wrong, but “right” is not a “living wage” and “wrong” is not corporate “greed.” What is wrong is that students are violently disrupting Harvard. What is right is to stand up for Harvard’s property rights, including its fundamental right to set its own terms for employment without interference by violent student groups.