I was twenty when I finished college. Yes, I finished college. My supervisor, he was from Haiti and he was high-class there too. So when I started, when I picked up a mop, he told me, "Don’t think about it Wilson, just do it." But the managers, they are testing me—they leave pennies on the floor, in the corners, to see if I've cleaned well.
Wealth and Poverty at Harvard
Between 1994 and 2001, the endowment of Harvard University tripled, making the school the wealthiest non-profit in the world, second only to the Vatican. In the same years, Harvard heavily outsourced many service jobs to lower-paying companies, thus resulting in average wage cuts of 30% for the schools' custodians, food-workers and security guards. In response, I got involved with a student group called the Harvard Living Wage Campaign and I began this project. My goal was to publicize the situation, to share the stories of a number of service-workers I had come to know, and to raise questions about the prevailing class-structure at Harvard and on college campuses in general.
Being the cleaning lady you know people. You hear things. You see things. You're the quiet dirt cleaner. Financially I'm okay now. I was able to move out of the projects, but, you know, after paying taxes and day care and car insurance, that’s when you start going to food pantries and soup kitchens at night and you start trash-picking for clothes and toys and furniture. I find good food in the garbage here, too. It's very tiring, and it's hard work, especially if one of the kids pukes. The kids drink, and they puke, and it dries on the walls and that’s kind of gross. But you just clean it up, you hold your nose and you think to yourself, "I got three kids, I love my kids, I love my kids."
I took pills to stay awake. I needed pills when I came home, to fall asleep. Because I work here seven AM to four PM. $11 an hour. And then I drive a cab 'til midnight. I have four children, two boys, two girls, and they do not like it. They see me every weekend, but Monday through Friday I only speak to them on the telephone. I rarely take [pills] anymore because it makes matters worse. The metabolism never quite adjusts. The nervous system is always a little off.
There’s this very tall, very pretty blond girl where I work. I see her all the time, but she never sees me. She sees through me, if you know what I mean. I am invisible… One of the offices I clean has the student files in it [and] late at night when I’m working and when everyone’s gone from the office, I’ll go to their files, see?
After three years of urging Harvard to reverse wage cuts, fifty members of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign took over Massachusetts Hall, which houses the Office of the President. We refused to leave until the school reversed cuts in wages and benefits, stopped outsourcing, and agreed to a living wage policy. Neil Rudenstine, the school's President, told us he would resign before he negotiated with us.
From the Foreword by Studs Terkel
Greg Halpern has put forth one of the most hopeful and exhilarating books in recent years...
It was a motley group of these kids—who in their sit-in at the Harvard administration building set off a bonfire for equity and justice. It was the testimonies—distributed as photocopies, read at rallies, and now printed in this book—that had inspired them...
For the students who sat-in, the odds were overwhelmingly against them. Yet something remarkable and wholly unexpected happened. Other students, who might otherwise have been interested only in making it postgraduately big, gathered around. Faculty members, who might not have taught Ethics 101 but did practice it, joined the young sitters-in in protest.
The administration, which until this moment said "Never"—the president had vowed to resign rather than negotiate—finally bowed. Considerable concessions were won...
Greg Halpern was one of those sitters-in. Fortunately and fortuitously, he is a remarkable chronicler, as an interviewer as well as a photographer...
The Sit-In was followed by a year of negotiating with the administration. Ultimately, Harvard agreed to pay all its service workers, including janitors, security guards and dining workers, a living wage of $10.25 per hour in 2002. This represented a significant, immediate raise for over 1,000 service workers, some of whom had been earning as little as $8 per hour. Harvard also agreed to immediately place a moratorium on outsourcing jobs to lower-paying companies. In the end, the Campaign resulted in annual pay and benefits gains of more than $10 million per year for service workers on campus.