Inclusive organizing vs. Exclusive organizing: Amended

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To the Honorable City Councils of Cambridge and Boston,

  • Report of Public Officials and Other [Boston]
  • Consent Communication [Cambridge]
    • Online at  The Spring 2001 occupation of Mass Hall by the students of the Progressive Student Labor Movement[PSLM] brought some improvement to the lives of some of Harvard’s lowest paid workers. Included in the settlement that ended the occupation was a temporary and limited respite from the steady trend over the last 35 years to outsource and deunionize labor at Harvard.1 The group had a number of significant assets and some luck. They had been steadily at work for four years – greater than average continuity for student political groups. They were members from Law, the Kennedy School, Medicine, and Public Health, as well as graduate and undergraduate students from Arts and Sciences.2 A student doing “worker outreach” spoke to me at the guard desk of the Lamont Library. They had a fairly vibrant organization with fairly broad recognition on campus, when they had some luck.

      President Neil Rudinstine announced his retirement in the spring of 2000. Going into the fifth year of PSLM, I was invited to a meeting in the Parlor Room of Phillips Brooks House. It was full about 50 people; surprisingly close to the number that went into the occupation. There was a steady stream of events involving a coalition of three groups of low wage workers.

      Then there was the occupation. For twenty one days close to fifty people inside Mass Hall and anywhere from 300 to 1000 outside. Radical groups and mainstream politicians came in support.3 It was an inclusive effort. Nonetheless, as I’ve said, it did not achieve all of it’s goals, but they did achieve measurable success. There were, I’m sure many things went on behind the scenes that would have made me wince had I known. Still, I think there is only one thing I would criticize. They did so many things well that they made it look easy. Incoming students never quite got it.

      In defense of the newer students [SLAM], the Class of ’01 did not completely create their own circumstances. A long tenured President concerned about his legacy has vulnerabilities a sitting President does not have.4

      There was among the newer students a desire to outdo their predessors. They wanted to acquire the assets of PSLM, but “rebrand’ the organization to a more explicitly radical mold. And the leadership was largely First Years and the group undergraduate. It made a difference. They were very late to learn that in the abscence of the ‘guaranteed’ secular apolcalypse a successful radical action involves a lot of boring non-radical work. The result was an effort smaller and less significance than the effort they were determined to outdo. This has left one significant downside for Harvard Labor. The contract Security Guards, with community support, will probably get a reasonable contract with Allied-Barton. But the Student Labor Action Movement has left the door wide open for Harvard adminsitration, at the end of that contract, to simply go to another, lower bidding, non-unionized vendor. This may be good for SEIU in the long term, but the particular guards at Harvard now will have their lives disrupted. Further, the guards in HUSPMGU and my library guards are probably more vulnerable to outsourcing than before.

      I urge the community to support S.E.I.U. 615 in it’s efforts to get a livable contract with Allied-Barton, but I also urge the community to condemn Harvard’s continuing policy of outsourcing and deunionization of Harvard labor. We must “insource” jobs at Harvard.5

      This is admittedly a rearguard action, a genuinely progressive program for labor has yet to emerge.6 But secular apocalypse is so notoriously unpredictable that in the current historical circumstance the misestimation of its imminence is creating a lot of disjoint pockets of heat and not a lot of light.

      1Coworkers who were at Harvard before me say that the painters were all “let go” in the early ’70’s. That’s just about the time that the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers [AFSCME local 3650] was formed.

      2At the sit-in proper there were people from the Business School, but I don’t know when they entered the picture. There was even a string theorist 🙂

      3I would like to have heard the discussion when the HUPD officer explained to Senator Kennedy that he was not allowed in to see the students. I was rather proud of the Senator’s performance.

      4The Late Larry Summers had no legacy to protect when he shuffled off this mortal coil. As I’ve mentioned previously, there are cases where mortality and departure from Harvard are the same. There do, hovever, appear to be backdoor attempts by the Fellows to partially resurrect him. The legacy of a second time President who, despite a background in labor, presided over the beginnings of union busting at Harvard is harder to calculate. It is doubtful that SLAM is able to do, let alone take advantage of, such a calculation.

      5This is actually easy to do. Harvard could negostiate a rent-to-own agreement with Allied-Barton. SEIU is constrained by law against such a demand, but the community at large is not and the students in particular could raise this with impunity. I once heard the argument advanced that Harvard Human Resources couuld not find guards at the then going rate of $11.50/hour which required using S.S.I. who could find guards at the then going rate of $9.00/hour. Administration clearly didn’t check with Harvard economics on that one.

      6There are some encouraging movements on the scene e.g. Participatory Economics and the Free Software Movement. Participatory Ecomomics seeks to be general, but has limited “mindshare’ at the moment. Free Software is restricted in the activities it covers, but it has achieved significant “marketshare”. Micro$oft may dominate the personal computer, but Apache software has dominated the webserver space for years. Both movements explore how to spread advanced modes of production beyond the privileged few. And they are not locked in to a specific prediction of a secular apocalyptic event. They are achieving results now!

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