Campus & Community

Damon, Affleck rally to living wage cause

3 min read

Former Harvard student Matt Damon and Cambridge native Ben Affleck added their voices – and drawing power – Saturday to the chorus of Harvard students, Cambridge City Councilors, and others calling on the University to adopt a $10.25 per hour living wage.

The pair was the highlight of a two-hour rally on the steps of the Littauer Center that drew approximately 400 labor activists, curious passers-by, and fans of the Hollywood stars. The rally was the latest in a series of demonstrations whose aim is to pressure the University into adopting the Harvard-specific minimum wage for all workers on campus.

Activists recently increased their demanded wage to $10.25 from $10 per hour to reflect a cost-of-living adjustment to the living wage set by the city of Cambridge. They had earlier amended their position to include fair benefits in addition to a living wage.

Damon and Affleck burst onto the Hollywood scene in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, the tale of a brilliant youth from South Boston who works as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Damon, who attended Harvard but didn’t graduate, described his appearance as “one of those painful moments when it is morally incumbent on the son to turn around and reproach his parents for not living up to their own moral standards.”

“This is the richest University in the world,” Damon said. “And the fact that the people who keep this machine running – who feed the students, look out for their safety, and clean the bathrooms and hallways – are not given a living wage is demeaning to us all.”

Affleck, whose father was a janitor and stepmother a cleaning woman at Harvard, said a $10 per hour living wage would be “a start” and “still less than fair.”

“This is not a summer lark. It is not a part-time adventure for beer money. This is their life, their livelihood, and their career,” Affleck said. “Make this a school where you do not have to avert your eyes in shame when you see a janitor in the hallway.”

In addition to calling for the living wage, speakers at the rally also criticized the recommendations of an eight-member committee of faculty and senior administrators released last week. The committee spent the past year examining issues surrounding Harvard’s contingent workforce and its lowest-paid workers.

The committee, called the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies, recommended that the University greatly expand a pilot basic skills program underway at the Faculty Club that provides English as a second language, high school equivalency, and other basic skills training. Classes take place during paid release time from work.

The committee also recommended an extension of health benefits to some part-time workers, a host of secondary benefits and perquisites such as a Harvard ID card and subsidized T passes for long-term casual workers, and the adoption for the first time of University-wide guidelines on service contractor hiring.

The committee rejected the idea of a living wage, however, saying such a move fails to take into account the value of benefits as a form of compensation and also fails to improve workers’ prospects of moving into better-paying jobs in the future.

While they did not support a living wage, the committee carefully considered the issue, stating in their report that they agree with the aim of the Living Wage Campaign: that Harvard workers should get fair compensation for their work.

“Benefits are no substitute for wages. You can’t pay your rent with benefits,” said Harvard Living Wage Campaign member Ben McKean ’02. “Harvard cannot use educational programs to justify paying a poverty wage.”