"SI SE PUEDE"
WHY PROTEST MATTERS, AND YES, IT DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
IN QUEBEC AND AT HARVARD
By Elaine Bernard
As the FTAA protesters head up to Quebec, I've found myself
doing numerous interviews with the media on the FTAA. It's a
tough issue to try and explain in sound bites, but in the aftermath of
Seattle I have observed that the media is a little more conducive to
hearing criticism of trade liberalization and the corporate driven
globalization agenda. Predictably, however, most of the interviews
start or end with the same question. "Do you really think these
protests make a difference?"
For a media in a country that was founded on "protest," the
irony of this question never fails to amaze me. The very fact that
the media is now calling protesters and looking to discuss the trade
issue is a significant change from the NAFTA debate of a few years
ago when we were almost totally shut out of the media. Yes,
protest has made a difference. Recently it was announced that the
WTO is planning to hold its next meeting in Qatar. Is it possible to
get further away from protesters? The image of the mighty WTO
running around the world seeking the perfect, secluded, barb
wired, secure location for its next meeting. A location where world
leaders will not be confronted by their citizens. They can run, by
they can't hide! Yes, protest matters.
The fact that protests in the US denied the Clinton
administration, and may yet succeed in denying the new Bush
administration, "fast track" authority, a necessary legislative
procedure for adopting a trade deal, tells me that protest matters.
The collapsing of the ill fated Multilateral Agreement on
Investment, once protesters secured a copy of the document and
floated it globally, courtesy of the internet, tells me that protesters
do have an impact.
Yesterday, students at Harvard University peacefully occupied
the President and Provost's offices, demanding that Harvard pay
employees a "living wage." Again, the question was asked, "does
protest really make a difference?"
For over two years, students, have campaigned for Harvard to
adopt a living wage for all of its direct and subcontracted
employees. Imagine, students at the wealthiest university in the
world, campaigning on behalf of the least well paid workers at
Harvard. Isn't this the social engagement and civic conscience that
the much touted liberal education is suppose to engender in
students? I fear these students will not be getting a merit citation
for their actions, however.
The surrounding communities of Boston, Cambridge and
Somerville have all adopted "living wage" ordinances, but Harvard,
one of the largest and most powerful employers in the area, has
steadfastly refused to raise the wages of its employees to this
modest community standard. Under pressure from the students,
Harvard did appoint an "Ad Hoc Committee on Employment
Policies" to examine the issue of low wage workers at Harvard.
After an exhaustive thirteen-month investigation, during which they
managed to speak to only one worker (brought to meet with the
committee by the students) the Committee concluded that Harvard
should not have a mandatory wage floor B as it would interfere with
the collective bargaining process. In fairness to the Committee they
came up with many suggestions for training, education, and some
flexibility on benefits and other imaginative options. But, as one low
paid worker said to me "really, what we need is more money." As
for the lame excuse of fearing to interfere with the collective
bargaining process, this is precious. I can't imagine a union
rejecting a living wage and demanding a sub-subsistence standard.
There is not a union on Harvard's campus today that is opposed to
the living wage B nor a union that sees a living wage as a threat or
challenge to collective bargaining.
The students have protested, and agitated for a living wage.
They have educated themselves, they have activated many in the
community, and they have taught many of us in the Harvard
community about the lives of our fellow workers, the hidden
workers at Harvard, the contract workers, the contracted out
services, some food services and cleaning workers, workers who
arrive at Harvard when everyone else is leaving at the end of the
day. They have held demonstrations, rallies, concerts, teach-ins,
petitions, pickets, letter writing, meetings with the administration,
and even a short sit-in to bring attention to the issue. The students
have continually worked to assist in giving voice to the cause of the
least powerful of our community.
And finally, with the administration saying that the issue of a
living wage at Harvard is closed, that there is not more to discuss B
they marched into the President and Provost's office, and by their
protest action they have forced the issue back on the table.
Does protest matter? Yes! In fact, it's the very energy of
change. But whether this struggle succeeds this time is not just up
to the Harvard students. It's now time for the rest of us in the
Harvard community to join with the students and give them our
support. We all can prevent them from being victimized for this
action B and tell the administration that we too believe that Harvard
must adopt a living wage policy.
Yesterday, 50 students organized a sit-in. Last night and into
today, people are walking outside of Massachusetts Hall, in
solidarity with the students inside. Harvard can be made to pay a
living wage B if the protests continue until it does. I expect,
however, that when the issue is finally won, that the university will
say that the protests meant nothing. That they are doing it,
because they wanted to. Because it's just or the right thing to do.
Or maybe just because "we're Harvard" and that should suffice as
an explanation. But you and I will know, it's because "protest
matters" and "we can make a difference." Si Se Puede!
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue May 01 2001 - 02:37:46 EDT