‘Make No Mistake: Harvard Has the Money to Pay Us Livable Wages’

Yves here. It’s not a secret that graduate students are now members of the precariat. But knowing that intellectually and having a sense of what that means in practice are two different things. This report, from the union organizing effort at Harvard, includes shameful conditions, like graduate students worrying if they can afford to eat, are simply inexcusable at an institution as rich as Harvard. However, Harvard has always been stingy with its help; back when I was a student, the food service workers had to strike for better pay, and the details their union presented on compensation and work conditions then as now did not reflect well on the university.

By Eric Coles, a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) student at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who researches social determinants of health. Originally published at openDemocracy

Harvard Graduate Students Union – UAW / Facebook

My father was a card-carrying union member for nearly 20 years when he worked as a computer programmer for the state of New Jersey. When I had questions about unions, he would list their achievements in making the lives of workers better, such as improving safety conditions, raising wages, ensuring adequate health benefits, eliminating child labor, and overall protection from the whims of management.

Following my father, I have been a proud member of the Harvard Graduate Students Union since I started to work for Harvard University two years ago. Now, we are on strike, fighting for the same things that my father would have fought for from his union days – fair wages, better healthcare, and protection from discrimination and harassment by supervisors.

It may be difficult to empathize with Harvard student workers. Popular culture often depicts us as privileged elites, like in the movie ‘Good Will Hunting.’ However, like many of my classmates and coworkers, I am not at all wealthy. During my 3-year program, I will acquire about $70,000 in debt. I am in my early 30s and my new debt burden affects when I start a family, buy a home, and what future jobs I can consider. The wage increase we are fighting for would directly improve my situation.

My story is unfortunately far better than that of some of my classmates. Through a student survey, my school, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, found out there were students who weren’t sure they could afford food for themselves. Other students have needed food stamps to get by. Questioning how you can afford food while studying at one of the richest educational institutions in the world is absurd. To my school’s credit, they offered assistance to those concerned about money for food over Christmas break. But that is a temporary relief to a full-time problem.

Moreover, I have heard stories of students on the verge of homelessness, sleeping out of cars or bouncing between friends. While the cost of living increases in the Boston area by as much as 3-4% each year, wages in many departments are stagnant. Students who have been at Harvard for five or six years cannot recall any general raises. Others received their first raise only after Massachusetts increased the minimum wage. Year after year, we fall further behind and are slowly being priced out of our communities.

Make no mistake: Harvard has the money to pay us livable wages. Their endowment is valued at $40.9 billion. Last year, this money returned $2.6 billion in investment gains – more than twice as much as the university took in for all tuition costs. In other words, Harvard makes more off the stock market than it does off its students. If the endowment worked full-time, its hourly wage would be over $1.2 million. Our union is asking for pennies in comparison.

The disparity between Harvard’s wealth and student workers’ struggles to make ends meet is especially frustrating because I study health inequity – the incredible, and unjust, differences in health across groups of people. My Harvard professors have taught me that income inequality is often the root cause of disparities in health outcomes and life expectancy. Poor health is seen more often in communities which face bigotry, racism, and discrimination, in part due to the chronic stress that marginalized people unjustly face. Many health experts believe that discrimination literally gets under your skin. It has measurable physical and medical consequences.

That’s just as true at Harvard as anywhere else. To improve the situation for student workers, we are fighting for independent and common-sense harassment and discrimination protections that are critical for real accountability. We want all student workers who face discrimination or harassment to have access to neutral, third-party recourse. As Harvard’s own professors have taught me, this is not just a moral issue, but a health issue. We want to protect current and future student workers from the chronic stress that many face on a daily basis as a result of discriminatory treatment. But so far, Harvard has refused.

I never imagined I would be pleading with the same organization that taught me about health inequities to take action to avoid perpetuating them. Our demand is to take a minute portion of the billions Harvard makes each year, and use that money to ensure all student workers have enough food to eat, an adequate home to sleep in, and affordable healthcare. I am incredibly disappointed that Harvard is fueling the same problems they have trained me to resolve.

Don’t let the Harvard name confuse you. We are workers, and we are fighting for the same rights as many unionized staff: fair pay, good health insurance, and protection from abusive supervisors. Though my father was never a Harvard student worker, he would recognize our fight for the same rights, benefits, and protections his union won for him and many others across the country. Our cause is their cause, and like their cause, it must be won.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    If Harvard’s endowment is valued at nearly $41 billion, then perhaps the answer is to split Harvard into two independent sections. You would have the University which could be run as a non-profit and which might be able to pay it’s staff decent wages (supplemented by donations from its Alma mater), and then you would have the stock market investments which could be spun off as an independent firm. Unfortunately the later will always act as a parasitic entity in Harvard’s finances while bound together.

  2. Geo

    Not that anyone here needs another reason to despise Buttigieg but this excerpt from his book about “SJW’s” protesting for Harvard workers to have a living wage back in 2001 is quite fitting for this article:

    In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university’s president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure—Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another—had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.

    Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]


    Spoken like a RealDemocrat™.

      1. tegnost

        I think pete’s present participle needs an identifier, something to add to the action verb that emphasizes the action, such as (I’ll just suggest this one)… Striding scornfully would work well here, just as a suggestion for clarity

  3. Larry

    When I was a postdoc at Harvard Medical School, my reward for obtaining an NIH fellowship to support my work was to become an independent contractor in the eyes of Harvard and lose all my benefits. My advisor was unsympathetic saying a postdoc is the time to work hard and go into debt that will pay itself off later. Nevermind that the cost of living in Boston was so different from his postdoc days at Harvard, my path would be just as sunny as his.

    1. KLG

      Yep. Same thing happened to me at Johns Hopkins, as it does to essentially every graduate student everywhere who is awarded such a (very competitive) fellowship. Benefits disappear, no Social Security included during that particular work experience, payment of quarterly income tax, which is a total pain in the ass when having enough to eat is a challenge…Anyway, Scientists! You just can’t trust them! They make up sh*t like anthropogenic global warming just so they can get rich off grant money.

  4. Winston Smith

    This issue resonates with me although my (long) experience as a graduate student was acquired in Canada, living in affordable cities with what I felt at the time was suitable support. However, I was in chemistry so that support came in the form of undergraduate lab supervision, some stipend and of course ridiculously low tuition compared to the US. I cannot imagine being able to devote oneself fully in a graduate program-nothing less will do-having to worry about your next meal or where you might sleep. I think the some supervisors attitudes “I had it rough and so should you” is akin to the idea that med students should undergo sleep deprivation and still be able to perform because that is what their supervisors did. I came to the Boston area for a post-doc in the booming 90s in a good lab with a wonderful boss and decent support. I was somewhat shocked that my 25k$/yr (+benefits!) only allowed me to share an apt whereas as a phD student in Montreal, I could afford a 1-bedroom apt on less than half the money. I had it easy compared to what is described above. Simply put, these gifted hard working and dedicated young people are being exploited and abused by an institution that can obviously afford to do better.

  5. Michael Fiorillo

    I wrote the following almost ten years ago, while Obama and Arne Duncan were attacking the public schools (which liberals ignored, if not supported), but it’s still relevant regarding the default behavior of elite universities: nyceducator.com/2010/09/ivy-league-union-busters-then-and-now

    1. HotFlash

      Michael, would love to read it, but link returns “Sorry, the page you were looking for in this blog does not exist.” Can I find it anywhere else?

  6. Jesper

    It is good that they are doing something, it would be better if there were more people doing it. However, to get more people involved then they’d have to be striking for the benefit of more people not only for the ones at Harvard. Strike for improvements for all, join causes with others.
    Maybe a focussed effort at Harvard can bring a win at Harvard which in turn will lead to wins in other places, maybe the narrow focus at Harvard does not generate the strength necessary for a win.

    On a side-note (possibly related): I’ve worked for employers who provided better salaries and better benefits than most other employers. That was good but it made the colleagues quite horrible – all were so focussed on protecting their job/position that pre-emptive backstabbing were not uncommon, stealing credit and deflecting blame were common, collaboration was part of the official ethos but the reality was intense competion leading to siloing of information and really bad office-politics.
    A win for them at Harvard and only Harvard might make the positions at Harvard even more attractive and the already competitive environment might get even worse.

  7. shinola

    The author of this article doesn’t understand the low pay situation because he’s enrolled in the wrong program. He would comprehend it better if he had pursued an MBA…

  8. Arizona Slim

    My late mother was a proud teachers’ union member for many years.

    I wonder where the big national unions like the NEA and the AFT are on this particular issue. Because I can almost hear Mom saying in her unforgettable mocking tone, “If it’s Havh-vahd, they can afford to give those people a raise.”

    BTW, Mom and her colleagues never went out on strike, but she wouldn’t have hesitated to walk the picket line.

  9. Iapetus

    I find it curious that an institution which charges its undergraduates almost $50,000 a year in tuition, and which earns twice as much from its endowment than it does from collecting tuition, and whose endowment pays at most a tax of 1.4% on its net investment income, and which apparently “owns 9.56 percent of the land in Cambridge, 5.70 percent in Allston, and 0.27 percent in Boston”, and which is exempt from federal taxes, state taxes, local taxes, property taxes, and which can issue tax exempt bonds, and which receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year in federal government funding cannot pay its graduate students and junior staff a livable wage or possibly provide them with local subsidized housing.

    1. flora

      Think of what Harvard is really teaching its undergrad students about how to treat employees. Harvard admins are great at pronouncing high-horse liberal gibberish on the one hand, while they harshly exploit Harvard’s grad student TA and RA employees.

      Mayo Petie apparently learned the lesson. /s (see Geo’s comment above).

  10. ChrisPacific

    I was fortunate enough to find a department that felt some responsibility to look after its grad students. Even then, there were some coercive elements to the relationship. You could be required at any time to do TA work for possibly quite long hours, at what amounted to minimum wage (for skilled work essentially requiring an advanced degree).

    The rationalization was always that learning to teach was part of the educational experience they were offering you, and practical experience was part of that (actually 100% of it in some cases as there was often not much in the way of guidance or support) so they didn’t need to pay more. There was some truth to that in a market sense if not a moral one, since there were relatively few good academic jobs at the time and lots of competition for them, but most of the students were there for the research and regarded the teaching part as a necessary evil. There were some exceptions – a fellow student of mine willingly took on full responsibility for running a class, minimum wage and all, because he aspired to a teaching job and wanted the experience. The fact that he actually put in some effort to prepare and do a good job, combined with natural aptitude, turned out to be enough for the students to rate him as the best professor they’d ever had at that university, even though he was a new lecturer with no prior experience. You’d think this would have been embarrassing to the experienced lecturers there, and the fact that it wasn’t demonstrates the general lack of interest in teaching as a discipline at even the top universities.

    In any case, there was a clear power imbalance and you needed to both do your homework and be lucky to avoid the abusive situations, of which there were many. I heard lots of horror stories from transfers and people at other institutions. It’s something people tend to do for aspirational reasons rather than practical ones, and many are young and don’t have much life experience yet. They tend to trust that institutions will deal with them in good faith, which is not always the case. I shudder to think what things must be like now following the MBA takeover and rampant commercialization of higher education.

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