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When the Richest University Shortchanges its Workers

By Salma I. Elsayed, Henry N. Lear, and Brian J. Zhou
Salma I. Elsayed ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Dunster House. Henry N. Lear ’24 is in Eliot House. Brian J. Zhou ’24 is in Wigglesworth Hall. The students are members of the Student Labor Action Movement.

Two weeks ago, the Cambridge City Council passed a resolution supporting Harvard custodial staff who are seeking a contract extension. This move comes weeks after the Harvard Management Company announced that the endowment has grown by 7.3 percent this year to $41.9 billion, continuing to cement Harvard’s status as the richest university in the world. Despite the University's endowment being at its largest in history — in contrast with the "grave financial situation" experts and administrators have lamented for months — Harvard has consistently refused basic protections for the workers who make it run. Harvard pressured workers into retiring early, allegedly denied access to personal protective equipment, and forced Harvard University Dining Services workers to choose between jeopardizing the safety of their families and earning a paycheck.

Harvard is the richest it has ever been, yet continues to deny custodial staff the contract extension they are asking for in the midst of a pandemic, leveraging this crisis as an opportunity to improve the University’s bottom line. Securitas has followed suit in rejecting proposals by security guards who are subcontracted by Harvard.

The collective bargaining agreement that governs the conditions of employment for Harvard's 700 custodial and janitorial staff was set to expire in November, but has been extended to mid-December as Harvard and the union continue negotiations. Harvard workers, custodial staff included, are at high-risk for COVID-19, but continue to provide invaluable services to keep Harvard running. The pandemic has created additional challenges for their families, navigating a high-risk job while needing to arrange childcare for their children who are participating in remote schooling. Amid these difficulties, Harvard has forced the union’s hand, giving it no choice but to bargain for a new contract and forcing them to demonstrate for a fair shake at the bargaining table. Entering these negotiations, custodial staff have organized multiple rallies, asking for the basic assurance that they will not lose their jobs cleaning the world’s wealthiest school.

While Harvard has announced a new emergency policy to allow workers employed directly by the University to receive 70 percent of their pay, this proposition falls short of guaranteeing all custodians’ employment for the spring semester. Moreover, 300 custodians that are not employed directly by the University will be left out of this policy. As Cambridge city councilors have argued, not only does this jeopardize the cleanliness of our facilities, but laying off workers may lead to food insecurity, poverty, and housing insecurity for many families. The University has a responsibility to all of its workers, even those that it does not directly employ. Harvard is the client of these third-party contractors, and must extend protections to workers that fall under their auspices, even if not directly.

And speaking of third-party contractors: Securitas guards’ contract was also set to expire on Nov. 15, and the company responded with a less-than-generous offer. The guards have continued to propose simple changes that would bring their benefits and working conditions in line with other work units at the University under Harvard’s Wage and Benefit Parity Policy. Guards are still fighting for basic benefits that other unions have been offered from Harvard, including overnight differential pay and additional sick days for COVID-19-related absences. Still, Securitas has limited their offer to one year and refused to increase wages.

Harvard tends to absolve itself of any responsibility for security guards’ complaints and grievances because they fall under the purview of a third-party contractor, Securitas. Under this technical job classification, Harvard is able to claim guards are not Harvard personnel and look the other way when it comes to the majority of their outstanding concerns.

At the start of 2018, Securitas, under Harvard’s watch and tacit approval, allowed for a dramatic increase in the cost of healthcare for many guards, with some employees now paying several times more in out-of-pocket copays than before. Coping with a contagious virus under these slashed healthcare benefits has posed an uphill climb for many workers. Securitas has offered to cover the additional $48 dollars per month for each guard to maintain access to healthcare, but they have refused to allow any further discussion about copays. Many other work units on campus, however, already enjoy benefits like copay reimbursements and out-of-pocket maximums.

If the administration or Harvard community at large were to weigh in on any one of the guards’ demands, Securitas would have no choice but to listen to their client. The University’s attempts to shirk its duty to speak up make their position clear: They would prefer to let Securitas do the dirty work and bargain away wage increases or decent healthcare for guards, knowing their bottom line can only be improved by their silence.

As this pandemic rages on, Harvard has continued to devalue its workers, which makes student advocacy all the more important. Both Securitas workers and custodial staff, whether or not they are directly employed by the University, risk their safety every day to keep Harvard clean and safe, and it is our responsibility as students to stand with them.

Students have a long history of advocating for workers, including supporting the 2016 HUDS strike and the 2007 student hunger strike for contracted security workers to obtain a living wage. This spring will also mark the 20th Anniversary of the Occupation of Massachusetts Hall in 2001, during which dozens of students held a sit-in for three weeks to protest the low wages paid to janitorial, food service, and maintenance workers.

While remote advocacy is difficult, over 1000 students, staff, and faculty have already signed a petition in support of Harvard’s workers. As opposed to demonstrating in person, as we might in a typical semester, students must turn to other modes of activism — the members of the Student Labor Action Movement have been calling and emailing University officials to ask for a fair contract. We must stand up where Harvard has not to demand worker protections for these members of our community.

Salma I. Elsayed ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Dunster House. Henry N. Lear ’24 is in Eliot House. Brian J. Zhou ’24 is in Wigglesworth Hall. The students are members of the Student Labor Action Movement.

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