Thursday, September 17, 2009

Protesters Highlight Health Concerns

Protesters Highlight Health Concerns

Students and union activists protest layoffs and hours reductions for janitors in front of the Holyoke Center yesterday. They say that sanitation standards will slip, and health and safety will suffer as a result.
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Published On Thursday, September 17, 2009 12:38 AM

Union activists and students at yesterday’s labor rally added to their tried-and-true repertoire of bullhorn blasting and sign waving to walk to Mass. Hall to deliver a modest gift to University President Drew G. Faust: a bag labeled “Get Well Harvard,” filled with cards from protesters.

But the gesture was not a sarcastic reference to the University’s recently-announced 30 percent drop in endowment value.

Instead, the cards left space for people to write “recommendations for a healthy Harvard,” and were intended to highlight a message—that the health of Harvard’s workers is deteriorating, and that the well-being of students and staff will suffer soon as well. Protesters argued that recent layoffs and hour reductions have left janitors with more to do in less time, and that sanitation standards will inevitably suffer—hurting the rest of the Harvard community.

“The first line of defense [against disease] is sanitation, and that’s the function of janitors,” said Daniel B. Becker, a union organizer who represents Harvard’s service workers.

A Harvard police officer accepted the gift bag and brought it into Mass. Hall, but it is unclear if Faust received the offering. Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin declined to comment on the matter, saying only that he was “confident cleaning standards are being maintained” and that no Harvard-employed janitors have been laid off this summer.

But the University did slash work hours for over 100 of its own janitors in July, and numerous janitors it employs through outside firms—a group not addressed by Galvin’s statement—have been laid off in recent months as a result of reduced custodial budgets.

Abigail S. Brown ’11, a member of the Student Labor Action Movement, said that officials need to understand that there are “all sorts of people that make up Harvard and need to be recognized as valuable.” While yesterday’s actions were not intended to be conciliatory, Brown said SLAM would be employing various new strategies this year, hopefully embodying more “positive spin” than in the past.

“SLAM is not an anti-Harvard organization,” Brown reiterated.

But other attendees of the rally were more militant. Chanting repeatedly “No justice, no peace,” and “Harvard, escucha, estamos en la lucha” (Harvard, listen, we are in a fight), roughly 50 protesters picketed outside the Holyoke Center, denouncing what they called Harvard’s greed and calling for shared sacrifice by administrators. Geoff P. Carens, a Harvard librarian and union member who frequently organizes such vocal protests, ridiculed the University for saying that it was in the midst of a fiscal crisis and had to lay off workers when the endowment still stands at $26 billion.

“These people don’t know what a tough decision really is. They’ll never know what it’s like to struggle for something worthwhile,” shouted Bryan Koulouris, a member of advocacy group Socialist Alternative, to the gathered protestors. “That’s what this struggle’s about: It’s about solidarity.”

—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at

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