Harvard Yard, Cambridge`
Twenty-five students exited Massachusetts Hall on May 8, 2001, to cheers and applause of two thousand people gathered outside. The students’ departure marked the end of a 21-day occupation of the university’s oldest extant building, within which is located the offices of Harvard’s president, The action was the culmination of a four-year campaign by Harvard’s Progressive Students Labor Movement (PSLM) to compel the university to pay its employees a living wage—one sufficient for workers to provide for their basic needs. At the time, a living wage in Cambridge was $10.25/hour, plus benefits; the federal minimum wage was $5.15. Harvard’s endowment was about $20 billion.
Although the sit-in divided students and faculty, large numbers of people within the Harvard community backed the PSLM and the workers. Within a week, hundreds began rallying outside Massachusetts Hall each day. A “tent city” was erected in front, with scores sleeping there nightly. Hundreds of Harvard faculty members signed a letter calling for a living wage and voicing support for the sit-in. And university janitors and custodians organized rallies. Meanwhile, high-profile figures visited the occupied building—including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and U.S Senator Ted Kennedy—and national media reported the story.
Eventually, working through intermediaries, the PSLM was able to gain important concessions, ones that allowed the university to save face. The resulting agreement led to the sit-in’s end. The accord promised the creation of a new committee, one headed by an economics professor, Lawrence Katz, and that included two union workers and two PSLM members, to study and make recommendations regarding the economic wellbeing of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers. The University also pledged to begin negotiations with the union of custodians for a new contract, and a moratorium on the outsourcing of Harvard positions (among other concessions).
The Katz Committee, as it came to be known, released its report in December 2001. While it did not back a living wage tied to inflation (and thus regular increases), it did recommend a one-time wage increase to $11.35 for the University’s lowest-paid workers and a parity policy to ensure that Harvard did not pay subcontracted workers less than what they paid those they directly employed. Writing in 2003, Greg Halpern estimated that the resulting changes in wages led to an annual redistribution of $3,738,000 from Harvard to more than one thousand employees.
Designed and built between 1718 and 1720, Massachusetts Hall has been the target of student activists over the last several decades. In 1972, for instance, Black students associated with the Pan-African Liberation Committee occupied offices in the building to protest the refusal of the Harvard Corporation (the University’s most powerful governing board) to sell its stock in Gulf Oil in light of the company’s involvement in Angola, at the time still a Portuguese colony. The students also demanded that Harvard issue “a public statement that it will not be involved in racist imperialist adventures in the future.” And during the Twenty-Teens students blockaded and occupied the building on various occasions to pressure the University to divest from fossil-fuel companies.
The second oldest, still-surviving academic building in the United States, Massachusetts Hall housed hundreds of George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. Today, offices of Harvard’s top administrators occupy most of the first three floors; first-year students reside on the fourth.
Red Line to Harvard Station.
To learn more:
Victoria Baena, “A Decade Ago, Another Occupation,” The Harvard Crimson, December 1, 2011.
Robert Decherd, The CRIMSON Staff, and Daniel Swanson, “Black Students Seize Mass Hall,” The Harvard Crimson, April 20, 1972.
Shin Eu-jung, Verita$: Harvard’s Hidden History, Oakland: PM Press, 2015.
Greg Halpern, Harvard Works Because We Do, New York: The Quantuck Lane Press, 2003.
Benjamin McKean, “The Beginning of the End,” The Harvard Crimson, May 9, 2001.
Rachel Traughber, “A College, 98 Feet Long,” The Harvard Gazette, May 4, 2018.