By Karen Klinger
While the nation’s economic crisis has been tough even for the world’s wealthiest university, critics say layoffs of some of Harvard University’s lowest-paid workers in response to its staggering investment losses make as much sense as trying to bail out a listing ship with a teaspoon.
The most outspoken of those critics are part of a coalition of students and employees who have staged a series of protests over the jobs cut so far and the employees who may be axed as the university seeks to trim its budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
In the latest demonstration, a group called the Student Labor Action Movement—SLAM—joined with custodians, food service and clerical workers and union representatives at a rally April 16 outside the Holyoke Center in Harvard Square.
Marching, holding signs and chanting phrases such as “They say cut back, we say fight back!” they asked onlookers to sign a “no layoffs” petition (www.hcs.harvard.edu/slam/petition5) while speakers said Harvard should not try to solve its financial woes on the backs of those lowest on the economic totem pole.
Over the last two months, Harvard has asked companies it hires to clean university properties to reduce costs by up to 40 percent, resulting in the elimination of an as-yet undetermined number of custodians’ jobs.
Organizers for the Service Employees International Union Local 615, which represents the workers, say they believe cuts in the cleaning staff are just a prelude to a host of other layoffs as the university grapples with a steep drop in its endowment.
Between July 1 and October 31 of last year, the endowment fell 22 percent to $28.8 billion, with another 8 percent drop projected by the end of June.
The latest rally, which the demonstrators said was part of a “Festival for Worker Justice,” took place a day after the dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences told a meeting of faculty, staff and students that $220 million in budgetary reductions would be needed over the next two years.
Dean Michael Smith said his division, the teaching body for most undergraduate classes with about 1,100 faculty and 3,500 staff members, is freezing salaries and offering early retirement packages to more than 500 non-faculty staffers who are at least 55 years old.
Not satisfied that the projected cutbacks would be carried out equitably, though, members of SLAM passed out fliers to meeting goers and put up a banner declaring “Greed is the New Crimson.”
One of the leaders of SLAM is Harvard senior Alyssa Aguilera, who criticized the custodial layoffs in the student newspaper, saying that by “targeting the lowest-paid, least-valued and mostly immigrant workers at this university, Harvard sends a clear message that some members of the community are more expendable” than others.
In an interview at the Holyoke Center rally, Aguilera said the university seemed to be reneging on agreements it made on employment and opportunities for lower-paid workers that were part of the resolution of a 21-day student sit-in of the Harvard president’s office in the spring of 2001.
During that stand-off, the students--who also occupied tents in Harvard Yard--gained the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy and members of the Cambridge City Council, among other political figures.
The city council also has injected itself into the current controversy, unanimously passing a resolution last month asking the university to refrain from making cuts that result in the firing of low-wage workers.
In addition, Councilor Marjorie Decker proposed that the city offer to forego money Harvard is slated to pay in lieu of property taxes this year if it keeps the workers, while Councilor Tim Toomey said the layoffs were “just a continuation” of the way the university treats its employees.
In the end, the councilors seemed to acknowledge that there was not much they could do to prevent the job cuts. Harvard officials, meanwhile, defended the school’s actions, noting that employee compensation costs account for nearly half of the university’s entire budget.
Spokesman John Longbrake issued a statement saying that Harvard “takes seriously its responsibility as a major employer,” but that in the face of the school’s worst financial situation in decades, more staff reductions were “increasingly likely.”
When Aguilera was asked if the protestors might follow the path set by their predecessors in 2001 if Harvard ignores their demands, she laughed, saying “Well, you just never know what could happen.”