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When Harvard Hated Unions: A Labor History Many Would Just As Soon Forget

That the university with the world’s largest endowment, writes Ted Gup, should be at loggerheads with those who wait upon and clear their tables is no anomaly in Harvard’s history.  (Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
That the university with the world’s largest endowment, writes Ted Gup, should be at loggerheads with those who wait upon and clear their tables is no anomaly in Harvard’s history. (Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/flickr)

Editor's update: Having failed to reach an agreement Tuesday, Harvard’s dining hall workers will be on strike as of 6 a.m. Wednesday morning. Chief among the workers' demands are affordable health care and sustainable wages of at least $35,000 a year. Workers intend to picket at locations across Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate campuses. 


Harvard’s 750 dining hall workers say they will go on strike Wednesday unless they and the university can come to terms. To the few familiar with Harvard’s dark history on labor issues, the confrontation brings to mind a series of earlier episodes in the university’s history that it would surely prefer remain buried in its archives. The truth is that Harvard, for all its reputation as a progressive and socially conscious institution, has a long and checkered record when it comes to labor relations. Rather than being a leader of workers’ rights and fair pay, its records reveal a pattern of repression, intimidation and reactionary politics. Indeed, even into the modern era, it saw itself as an instrument of those whose wealth and privilege were threatened by the humble aspirations of those in its employ.

That the university with the world’s largest endowment – a staggering $36 billion (more than Yale’s and Columbia’s combined) — should be at loggerheads with those who wait upon and clear their tables is no anomaly in Harvard’s history. Never mind the 2012 scuffle with the courts when The Harvard Club – not directly affiliated with the university but a direct beneficiary of its patronage – charged service fees that it pocketed instead of sharing with staff as tips.

...Harvard, for all its reputation as a progressive and socially conscious institution, has a long and checkered record when it comes to labor relations.

That is tame by comparison with the view Harvard took of workers, especially in the early years of the last century. It was Harvard’s longest serving president, Charles W. Eliot, who proclaimed that strike-breakers were “the heroes of American industry,” and who was dubbed by some “the greatest labor union hater in the country.” The Chicago Tribune of November 11, 1902 noted, “He [Eliot] had profound contempt for any man who did not choose to labor every hour as long as his strength would permit.” Strikebreakers were sometimes called “Eliot Heroes.”

His successor, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, was even worse.

Consider Harvard’s relations with the mills to the north, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Much of the Lowell family’s wealth had derived from the mills. Those who labored there, mostly immigrants, many of them women and children, worked horrible hours, with poor ventilation, frequent industrial accidents, respiratory ailments and little prospect of promotion.

(Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/flickr)
(Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/flickr)

Harvard’s Lowell had his own solution to the problem: He offered his students (Harvard was then all boys) relief from the upcoming mid-year exams if they would saddle up, arm themselves and guard the capitalists’ property. And this they did, forming a militia – Calvary Troop B — whose intent was to harass the workers and break the strike.

Such an expression of anti-labor sentiments was hardly unique on the Harvard campus. In August, 1919, when the Boston Police went out on strike, Lowell again called on some 200 Harvard students to pick up the duties of the police. That same year a number of Harvard students acted as strike breakers in the Boston Telephone Operators strike. The notion that strikers had legitimate grievances was alien to much of Harvard’s governing body, not to mention many of its students.

Worse was yet to come. The week before Christmas, in 1929, as the Great Depression took hold of the country, the "scrubwomen" who worked as maids cleaning up Harvard’s Widener Library asked that the university pay what the state said was due them – 37 cents  -- or two extra pennies — an hour. Many of these women – mostly Irish immigrants — were in their fifties and sixties, had been in Harvard’s employ for decades, and, as widows or spinsters, were their own sole source of income. They had waxed the floors of the libraries, tidied up the shelves, cleaned up after students, and polished the brass.

But rather than grant them two pennies extra an hour in compliance with the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Commission, President Lowell fired them the week before Christmas without notice, and without payment to see them over the holidays. They were now destitute, some finding themselves out on the street.

And there they might well have languished in abject poverty, but for the intervention of some 52 caring alumni – among them, Corliss Lamont, the son of the head of J. P. Morgan & Co. — who learned of their plight, took up funds under the name of the Harvard Square Deal Association, and provided for them the back pay they were due. The group branded Harvard’s action “harsh, stingy, socially insensitive, and considerably short of the highest ethical standards of the time.” Never did Lowell apologize. Indeed, he resented the alumni’s meddling and the harsh criticism that came with being in the national spotlight.

Lowell’s disdain for labor and laws designed to protect it never abated. In February 1934, as president emeritus of Harvard, he went on national radio to oppose a Child Labor Law amendment, arguing that it was the parent’s right, not the government’s, to decide such matters. He did not mention that such a provision might cut into the profits of those who owned the mills. In 1937 he lobbied Congress and the White House to declare sit-down strikes illegal, saying they made “a monkey out of constitutional government.”

The long record of institutional hostility towards organized labor is absent from most of the self-congratulatory volumes of Harvard histories penned by its scholars and alumni... And who can blame them?

Flash forward eight decades, and just this year Harvard’s President Drew Faust and the senior administration voiced strong opposition to the movement by graduate students to have the right to bargain collectively be represented by a union – a right now recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

The long record of institutional hostility towards organized labor is absent from most of the self-congratulatory volumes of Harvard histories penned by its scholars and alumni, who prefer to ignore its less decorous past. And who can blame them?

I cannot speak to the merits of the dining hall workers’ claims, but they would do well to steel themselves, read their histories, and be grateful that they do not have to face the tyrannical regimes that preceded them. And if they should indeed fail to reach an agreement, Harvard’s President Faust has already let it be known that the university has certain unspecified “contingency plans” at the ready – let's hope that does not include a militia.

Related:

Ted Gup Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ted Gup is an author and investigative reporter who teaches journalism at Emerson College and Brown University.

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