Campus workers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 22 07:31:58 MDT 2003

(not online)

Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2003
Going to Harvard for $7.50 an Hour

When I asked Gary Newmark if I could talk to him about his job, his
response was, "You want to know about regular working stiffs? You want
to know what I do? I unloaded from a truck probably every book you ever
read at Harvard. That's what I do." It was my first honest conversation
with a campus service worker.

There is a deliberate aura of wealth and power at Harvard, and it is
tended to by more than a thousand workers. They dust the portraits,
polish the oak panels, and prune the trees. They cook the food and guard
the campus; they work in every room of every building, day and night,
and yet one of their frequent complaints is that the nation's most
perceptive students and scholars simply do not see them.

I was embarrassed when someone had to explain to me that the reason the
lights were on all night in Harvard's buildings was that crews of
custodians were in those buildings, working all night to clean up the
mess of the day before. Then, during my junior year, I read Studs
Terkel's Working, and I was shocked that no teacher had ever assigned me
that book -- or any other workers' histories, for that matter.

Later that year -- 1998 -- I went to a meeting that my childhood friend
Aaron Bartley had called about starting a living-wage campaign on the
campus. At the meeting, I learned that while Harvard recently had broken
all records for university fund raising -- the endowment had nearly
tripled, from $7-billion to $20-billion between 1994 and 2001 -- the
university had, at the same time, been cutting the wages and benefits of
its lowest-paid employees through outsourcing. Amazed, I presented an
outline of what would become Harvard Works Because We Do, consisting of
interviews with and photographs of campus service workers, to the
history-and-literature program as my proposed senior-thesis topic. It
was rejected, on the grounds that it was not adequately academically
rigorous. The rejection only made me more stubborn. I started the
project anyway, and after graduating I spent the next three years
working on it.

As an undergraduate, I always worked. I inspected bags in a library, I
tended to a research greenhouse, I cleaned dorm rooms and bathrooms, I
shelved books in Widener Library, and, after graduating, I worked as a
carpenter's assistant on the campus. At one point, during my stint as a
carpenter, my supervisor had assigned me the uncommonly monotonous task
of drilling countless tiny holes through a number of metal pieces. After
a few hours of drilling, just before lunchtime, he walked up to me and
gave me a hard look. "Twenty-three years old and sittin' at a drill
press," he said. He shook his head in pity. "When I was your age I owned
my own business."

Perhaps because of my own background, I was never entirely comfortable
at Harvard. On weekend nights, "Harvard men" would walk confidently
around the campus in tuxedos, half-drunk and singing a cappella. For a
while, I tried to join in. I bought a tuxedo and joined the Phoenix, a
wood-paneled, all-male social club. Primarily we drank, played pool, and
held black-tie functions. Though to that point I hadn't fully begun to
notice the service workers, I do remember a long night, at 4 in the
morning, when Carol-Ann, the cleaning lady, came in early to get her
work done so that she could get back home to take her kids to school. I
remember seeing someone in the club lifting his legs momentarily from
the table while Carol-Ann wiped beneath them.

The next morning I bought a tape recorder. Uncertain how to proceed, I
let the interviews go in whichever direction they seemed to take us. The
interviewing process made me a student all over again. It seemed to me
there was nothing more complicated, fascinating, and problematic than
trying to understand, and then describe, another person's life.

At times, people's desire to talk seemed almost urgent. I was a passing
stranger, but I could listen for hours, and often that was enough. More
than once, I conducted an entire interview simply by pushing the
"record" button. Still, many managers and supervisors forbade workers to
talk to me, despite their legal right to do so. As the Living Wage
Campaign began to publicize these narratives, food-service and security
companies contracted by Harvard forbade their workers to speak with me
about their work conditions.

As a rule, the more protective the supervisors, the more I tried to get
around them. With its wages starting at around $7.50 per hour, the
law-school dining hall was the lowest-paying site on the campus. It also
had a reputation for disregarding workers' rights. Not surprisingly, its
managers were also the most guarded and resentful of my curiosity. I had
to wage a letter-writing campaign just to get permission to photograph
on the property for a single day, and even then a supervisor decided to
observe me quite deliberately. He sat hunched forward, taking slow drags
on his cigarette, watching as I photographed one of the line servers.

"Do you ask them not to smile?" he asked finally.

I did not, I said, and, controlling my voice, added, "I let people look
however they want to look." He threw his cigarette down and left.

 From the perspective of management and those being served, service
workers at large institutions are not really meant to be noticed; they
are meant to get things done quickly and quietly. I wonder sometimes
whether the limited interactions that do occur between server and served
are so often superficial because they represent a relationship with
which both "sides" are fundamentally uncomfortable. And yet, why do we
seem even more uncomfortable when that structure is challenged? I asked
that question of a library guard one day and got this response: "Some
people treat us like furniture. ... It's as if they feel irritated if I
talk to them, as if they feel violated. Some people feel as though the
person on this side of the desk belongs in a certain role, and if you
violate that, you're violating the status hierarchy, ... to the point
where some people seem damaged by it."

(Greg Halpern, a 1999 graduate of Harvard University, is pursuing an
M.F.A. at the California College of the Arts. The text and photographs
are from his book Harvard Works Because We Do, to be published next
month by Quantuck Lane Press.)


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