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Student Occupation Backed Workers’ Demand For a Living Wage

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Black-and-white cutout of a person speaking into a microphone, on a blue duotone photo of a tent encampment in front of an old stone building.

Occupying the president’s office and camping out on the quad, Harvard students threw a spotlight on income inequality–and the university’s corporate nature.

As the war on Gaza moves through its seventh month of unrelenting destruction, students around the world are setting up encampments and occupying buildings to press their institutions to cut financial and academic ties with Israel. Their peaceful and passionate protests are bringing a new level of intensity to the multi-sided movement supporting Palestine. They also recall and build on a living history of similar student actions, from those demanding an end to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s on. Convergence’s Stephanie Luce interviewed people who have been engaged in different generations of campus protests, and asked them to share reflections on the organizing they were involved in and the lessons it might offer for today.

In April 2001, students at Harvard University occupied the university president’s office for three weeks, demanding that the university pay its employees and subcontracted employees a living wage. The documentary Occupation tells the story of the campaign. Here, Stephanie Luce talks with Roona Ray, one of the organizers of the occupation.

Stephanie Luce: Let’s start out with a little of your own story. How did you get involved in the Harvard living wage campaign?

Roona Ray: I discovered activism when I was in high school. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and I was involved with a feminist group that I started in my high school and then with the National Organization for Women in Boston. When I arrived at Harvard in Fall 1998 I attended a rally held by the living wage campaign. Before this, I hadn’t really thought about labor and class issues in a formal way. .

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We were three years into the campaign before we collectively decided to occupy the President’s office. Over those three years, we did research, informed by academic work on living wages, like yours. We listened to the low-wage workers on our campus – learning about their lives and their economic conditions. We learned about living wage campaigns around the country, on other campuses and in different cities. We built relationships with workers on campus and in the community. We made our demand on our university, Harvard, the richest in the world. We pointed out that Harvard was not upholding the standards of the community: Cambridge, the city where Harvard is located, had a living wage ordinance.

By Spring 2001 we felt that we had reached the end of the road. We had done a lot of different actions targeting various people in power, and we hadn’t gotten any substantive results. So we planned, very carefully, over a number of weeks, the occupation of the president’s office.

We spent a few months intensely debating about whether that was the right option. Those debates brought a lot of people into the movement. We had really big, participatory, largely democratic discussions. Once we decided as a group to do the occupation, we spent a lot of time planning how to get in and what to do when we got in. For example, taking over the bathroom was one of the most important things. 

The occupation started on April 18, 2001. One of the funny things I remember about that morning is that one of the students had a car, and part of the plan was for her to drive in to the main gate that was right next to the building that we were taking over – the president’s office – and then she pretended her car stalled, and she left it there to block the entrance.

About 50 students took over the building. The secretaries who were working in the offices called the campus police as students sat down, linked arms and began chanting many of the chants that we had developed over the years.The police escorted the secretaries out, and soon after, they brought out plastic bags full of shredded paper. I guess, taking special documents, we don’t really know.

The first couple of days of the occupation were very intense. Would we be able to hold the space? Would we be able to gather attention to the issue that we were trying to raise public consciousness around? Would we be able to apply pressure on the university?

Initially, there was a media blackout. We had a lot of experience doing press releases and press conferences, and we had contacts with the local and national press, and we had planned in advance to send out a press release. In the first few days, we got no press coverage, and it was very frightening and depressing for us. The Harvard Corporation, which runs the university, is very powerful. They have a lot of relationships with the press, and so they iced us out of the press. We realized that we needed to make our presence known more visually, because when you’re occupying a building you’re invisible. We made banners and signs and started hanging them out the windows to advertise what we were doing.

Encampment boosts the occupation

Within a couple of days, we decided to start an encampment, just as students have been doing for Palestine. And that was really when things started to take off. Students and community members started coming to the President’s offices on the famous Harvard Yard and setting up tents, claiming more and more community space with signs. It made it very festive with a 24/7 presence. 

The nighttime hours are very vulnerable for protesters. Everyone’s asleep, it’s dark. And as we saw in the encampments in New York City, police raids happened in the middle of the night. So, we set up a 24/7 watch. Inside the building, there was always someone awake. There was a schedule. And there’s constant work to be doing. Some people were making phone calls and sending emails. This is actually in the early days of cell phones. So, in preparation for this, everyone had a cell phone, which was kind of a novel thing. We each had a paper list of everyone’s phone numbers.

We had relationships with campus unions from the three years of our campaign. One of the first things that really cheered us was when a group of union dining hall workers came to the occupation with a big stack of pizzas. They came to the door, and said, “Our job is to feed our students,” and they made a big show and flourish of delivering those pizzas and showing their support for us. After that, we started getting lots of food donations and people coming in asking how to help.

The outside encampment really became the most powerful part of the occupation, because it was visual. It provided other people and organizations a way to engage. It also made it a safer space for us. We called it a Tent City, and it rose up around us, starting with just a few tents. I was running it with another student activist, Amy Offner. We started having daily activities: one to two rallies a day, and candlelight vigils in the evenings. Throughout the day we would have a schedule of different events, with organizations, or with individuals who came to volunteer their talents to perform or speak. Sometimes we had open mics and workers could come and speak. We had various famous people come to support the cause. And eventually we did get through the media blackout and we were front page news in national newspapers. I think at least three times, over those three weeks – in The New York Times, LA Times and Boston Globe.  We felt it was a very successful action.

The Tent City really protected the occupation and the issue, because a lot of times the issue gets a little lost. Or, people who oppose the issue try to make it get lost. They try to distract from the issue at hand. They make it about the occupation, and the legality or the criminality of it, or whether there are “outside agitators.” That’s a playbook that’s been said by people in power for decades about student protest. 

As the encampment spread and took over half the yard, it became a place for people to discuss the issues, as you see in the current encampments for Palestine. It created a crisis and a space. Decision-makers are forced to grapple with an issue that they had been trying to ignore.

Harvard was like any greedy corporation

Our campaign was raising the issue of living wages on a broader scale – not just for Harvard workers, but for low-wage workers around the country, drawing attention to their plight.  We were calling into question the incredible economic inequalities between low-wage workers and these incredibly rich ivory tower institutions. Harvard is probably the most extreme, but I think people identified with the story because across the country, the condition of low-wage work is just very difficult for people. There are parallels between the university setting and the corporate world. Part of our campaign was to highlight how Harvard was like many corporations that were consolidating corporate power and money. We were speaking out against this model of corporate greed. It really hit a nerve for people around the country and the world.

The occupation and encampment went on for three weeks. We had a lot of large rallies over that time. I think one of the largest was one that Ted Kennedy and the AFL-CIO leadership came to. It was springtime and the tents were colorful and it was really beautiful. And this gave us a bit of levity, and protection, I think, from potential police violence, university violence. It also was a way to engage with community members. We did a lot of public education. We had a lot of literature. 

As an occupation goes on, one of the questions is, “How are we going to achieve our demands?” Initially, the university refused to negotiate with us, as they often do. And then they started saying, send us a student negotiator and we can start talking. We sent a couple of people, and I think we might have even rotated who it was so that students wouldn’t get singled out and harassed afterward or individually punished. Our negotiating team included the top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, Jon Hiatt, who volunteered his time.

The university agreed to create a committee on low-wage work. The committee would have to have student and worker representation. We accepted that as a win, because we thought that that was how universities handle issues like this.  Over several months, the committee was formed and eventually released a report recommending an increase in wages – they didn’t call it a living wage. They also expanded health care coverage for about a thousand workers and their families.

Stephanie Luce:  You said there was a really participatory process to decide to do the occupation. What was the process for negotiating the deal? How did the campaign decide what was acceptable?

Roona Ray: We had an inside team and an outside team, and I was more involved in the outside team. Communication in those days was harder than it is now. You couldn’t just get 100 people on a Zoom call. When there were meetings held outside the building, people inside the building would hang out the windows to try to listen in. There were meetings inside the building and people outside would try to participate but it was difficult. Meeting fatigue had set in for many. Folks occupying the building were meeting around the clock in a space with no showers and only one bathroom for over 50 people.

We tried to have a democratic, participatory way of deciding things. It was new territory for most of us, negotiating with a multi-billion-dollar corporation. We felt the stakes were high. Thinking about the lives of so many people that we were trying to impact and improve meant the discussions were intense. 

Stephanie Luce: It’s been over 20 years since the occupation and encampment. Can you talk about the impact of the campaign on your own life?

Roona Ray: It was the most significant thing that I’d ever done or been a part of. It also was the peak learning experience of my college career. Together, we were learning about democracy and how to do collective decision-making. Those are actually very hard skills that people don’t have in general, and in workplaces in particular. I would say most people and most Americans do not know how to have democratic participatory meetings. How to engage people, facilitate participatory discussions, create and follow an agenda: these are hard skills that I learned in those times, not just from the occupation, but through activism.

We learned a lot in an academic sense, as well. We did research and writing, and we had to communicate and argue our viewpoints, often in the face of intense emotional and intellectual opposition. We used every source of knowledge and experience that we could. For example, one student, Greg Halpern, had done a series of interviews with workers around campus. Eventually, it got turned into a book called Harvard Works Because We Do. These narratives formed the basis of our arguments for improving workers’ conditions. We asked: “What can we do, as a community, to improve conditions? What are our responsibilities as an educational community?”

Now I’m in my mid 40s, and I still think it is the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. I’m a doctor and obviously, I do good things for people and I’m proud of that. But I’m definitely most proud of the work we did as a campaign. Being part of a collective effort with dozens of smart, well-intentioned students and community members trying to improve our communitywas uplifting and inspiring. And it was empowering.  I’m still in touch with a lot of those people. It was powerful for all of us. For many of us, it’s a reference point.

We learned so much about the incredible inequality, corporate power, and greed that define our economy, and how to challenge it. The most effective model still involves organizing people in mass to challenge authority, power, and greed through direct action. I tried organizing a union in my residency program in 2010 and later successfully helped organize a union and negotiate a first contract at my first job out of residency back in 2014, and we used the same organizing model.

Our campaign happened during the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s: We were connected with the Battle of Seattle. We had students going to different anti-globalization protests. We sent a delegation to Quebec for the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.  We knew that we were very much part of the anti-globalization, anti-corporate power movement. 

We also were part of the anti-sweatshop movement. The technical name of our group was the Progressive Student Labor Movement. It had two wings that had a lot of overlap in students: the Harvard anti-sweatshop campaign (the United Students Against Sweatshops) chapter, and the living wage campaign.  We were definitely conscious of the global economy and our role in it.

Stephanie Luce: What might you say to the student protesters today, either lessons that you learned or things that you think might be useful for them?

Roona Ray: I’m impressed and inspired by their resolve, and their belief in their ideals and values and their defense of the Palestinian people against violence and genocide. It’s really been moving to see them continue this tradition of mass public protest. For those who have been either arrested or experienced violence, I’m sure some of them are feeling scared, and physically or emotionally hurt. I just want them to remember that they’re doing the most important work of their generation, to bring these issues to the forefront of the public consciousness. They will  have community among each other. That’s what will get them through it. Of course, older generations support them–I’m looking forward to meeting them–but I think they’ll have each other and that’s really the most important thing.

Stephanie Luce: I was at City College the other night when the police came in, and it was scary. It’s so painful and terrifying, but also inspiring. And enraging, to see the universities call in the police like they did.

Roona Ray: Our occupation happened the spring before 9/11. If we had done it after 9/11, we would have had a very different response. The whole world has become more militarized since 9/11.

In our case, we only dealt with campus police. The city police were never called in. But the way the New York City police were called in so quickly into New York student encampments says something about the weight and importance of these issues, and how much the campus administrators and other people in power are threatened by students’ efforts.

My other message to students is that I hope you continue your work. When I finished college, about a year after the occupation, I was really excited to join the Left and find a political life. It was a little harder than I expected. But I hope now that it will be a little easier for graduating students to find an organized Left where they can continue their work in whatever field they go into, or whatever community they live in. We need that energy. Being in midlife now it’s revitalizing to see that energy. The news every day is so depressing. There’s so many terrible things happening that it’s really nice to see the renewed energy from young people who are willing to stick their necks out quite a bit for Palestinian people who many of them have never met.


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