It was the end of 2nd day of the sit-in of Massachusetts Hall in Spring of 2001. Close to 50 members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement had been inside demanding a Living Wage for Harvard Workers. I had been there anytime I wasn’t sleeping or guarding the library. I was talking to Joanne Preston, when I spotted him. He had come in the Johnston Gate and huffed and puffed past Harvard Hall with a small entourage. – Ted Kennedy. He had gotten past Mass Hall when he saw the students hanging out of the windows. Without missing a step he swiveled an obtuse1 angle and headed straight for the windows. His campaign instincts as sharp as ever, he used both hands to greet the students inside. He worked his way along to the front. He marched up to the front door flanked on either side by a uniformed officer of HUPD. He grabbed the handle and had the door open a foot or so when the officer behind stopped it with is hand. The Senator turned to that Officer and said something. I wasn’t close enough to hear. The Senator turned to the other Officer and said something. There were two or three more cycles. I don’t know what was said, but I imagine at some point The Senator said, “What do you mean I can’t go in there, I’m Ted Kennedy.” Even so, he was not allowed in to see the students.
I did not remember what came next until I looked at The Crimson:
He spoke briefly to the crowd, drawing cheers when he announced his support of the sit-in.
“I believe we’re going to be successful,” he said as he pinned a living wage button on his jacket.
From inside the building, a PSLM member yelled out the window-asking Kennedy whether he would call University President Neil L. Rudenstine to ask for a living wage.
“I’ll call him, absolutely,” Kennedy said.
I’m sure I remember hearing the voice from inside and I’m sure that Teddy responded without hesitation. I’d like to say I remember whose voice it was, but I can’t. But the student I knew who had the instinct to do something like that was Aaron.
Later, local officials and members of the cook’s union would be allowed in to feed the students.
The sit-in did not achieve all of its goals, but did achieve some. The contract with SEIU was later renogiated raising wages for custodial workers. PSLM got a moratorium on outsourcing which was then and still is the single most powerful weapon the administration has in its continuing 35+ year campaign to bust the Harvard unions. That is one demand that the students have a unique ability to address. They are immune to the sanctions of labor law. At the same time, student power is transitory. Their personnel is constantly changing. When pushed into a concession, administrators will move to “watchful waiting.”
The end of the sit-in was a little awkward. PSLM and supporters declared victory from the steps of Mass Hall, while Joe Wrinn declared victory for the administration somewhere else. It was a truly Harvard moment – both sides proclaiming a moral victory. But Havard labor was observably helped by the efforts of PSLM. Subsequent students would spend a lot of time minimizing the accomplishment in favor of what they hoped to accomplish, but never did. Ted Kennedy was no revolutionary, I for one was glad he came. Mary Jo and the intrinsic instability of capitalism2 not withstanding, I was glad he came.
1What obtuse used to mean before it came to mean stupid, but you can see how the meaning developed.
2More evident now that at any time in the history of capitalism. I’ve cited Wall Street types so far so you won’t think this is the sole possession of wild-eyed radicals. But Robert Brenner has been saying this since 2002. If you missed his talk at the Workshop on the Political Economy of Modern Capitalism you can still find the source material under December 8.