Janitors protest at Harvard Square

Harvard Square was enveloped in protest yesterday afternoon as Harvard University’s Janitors and Service Union International (SEIU) local 254 fought for increases in custodial wages.

The campaign is part of a continued “Justice for Janitors” campaign that the SEIU is organizing throughout the year at a number of universities, such as Tufts and Stanford. SEIU local 254 is the largest union in the state that represents janitors at institutions of higher learning.

The march, held in coordination with Martin Luthser King Jr. Day, went off despite rain and cold temperatures. Many of the speakers reminded the audience that King demanded living wages for the working poor. The march was preceded by a rally held in the First Parish Church that included a speech by gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich.

“It is important to provide all employees a living wage,” Reich told the Daily. “Our institutions are our communities.”

At the rally, he went on to say, “A great university like Harvard should set a great moral example for the rest of the country.”

Civil rights leader Mel King took a harsher tone. “Harvard is not a great institution,” King said. “If it was a great institution, we would not have to be here today.”

The union also represents employees of OneSource, Tufts’ custodial contractor. Through fall campaigning, OneSource employees won a $3 wage increase that is going into effect this month.

In December, a Harvard panel found that the university needed to raise the wages of its outsourced custodial staff to reach a level of parity with other university workers. Harvard President Lawrence Summers has yet to make a decision on the panel’s recommendations.

“At some point there will be a response, but I don’t know when that will be,” Harvard Spokesman Joe Wrinn said. “He’s just distilling everything over the coming weeks.”

At Tufts, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), looking for better working conditions for Tuft’s janitors, used protests and petitions to publicize negotiations between the union and OneSource. SLAM leader Iris Halpern said that she thinks the Harvard recommendations, if instituted, are a good start.

Halpern said she was “proud of Tufts for taking a pseudo-lead,” but added that she feels that Harvard probably won’t institute all the recommendations. “All parts of the community are pissed off,” Halpern said about Harvard. “I think that they can go further.”

Harvard Janitor Shakespeare Christmas has faith that President Summers will institute the changes. “I think that he will because he talked highly of the custodians,” Christmas said. As to the wage increase at Tufts, Christmas thinks that it’s a good sign for Harvard. “If a smaller school is doing it, why couldn’t they?”

Many of the speeches were delivered in both Spanish and English as a reminder that the majority of the Harvard janitors are Hispanic, a point emphasized by some speakers. Throughout the rally, the SEIU representatives passed out signs and encouraged the crowd to chant “S?­, se puede” – Spanish for “Yes, we can.”

The rally included speeches by Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and State Representative Alice Wolf.

“We have to have justice for all in this country if we are going to call ourselves a democracy,” Turner told the crowd.

Harvard Education Professor Pedro Nogura said that if President Summers didn’t institute the changes, the university’s problems were only going to get worse. “I hope he gets the message that if he wants a peaceful spring, he will deal with this soon,” Nogura said.