[21] in Discussion of MIT-community interests

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daemon@ATHENA.MIT.EDU (Christopher D. Beland)
Thu Apr 19 11:26:03 2001

Message-Id: <200104190551.BAA03526@Press-Your-Luck.mit.edu>
To: mit-talk@mit.edu
Date: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 01:51:04 -0400
From: "Christopher D. Beland" <beland@MIT.EDU>
Resent-From: jhawk@MIT.EDU
Resent-To: mit-talk-mtg@charon.MIT.EDU

>  If the janitors don't think they're getting paid enough, they
> should strike or look for a different employer.

Isn't lobbying for the cause a bit better than a strike?  Especially
if the workers actually care about the people they are serving...

> If Harvard were to obtain some value from paying its labor more,
> they would have done so already.  Why are these folks entitled to
> extract more out of their employers than their work is worth?

Ok, so there's a fundamental disagreement of what "worth" is here.

Some people think that labor should be treated as a scarce resource
which should be allocated toward those are willing and able to pay the
most money for it, and that wage levels should be set by the market
forces of supply and demand.

Other people might agree with this, but also think that human labor is
fundamentally "worth" more than what the market might be offering at
moment.  A related view is that the economic necessity of feeding,
clothing, housing, and generally providing for a family (perhaps
combined with some notion of basic human decency) justifies paying
someone more than one might otherwise be able to get away with due to
market conditions.

(It just so happens that the minimum wage in this country allows one
to work full time while remaining below the poverty line.  Or so the TV
tells me.)

> In short, Harvard needs to make a sound business decision.  In any
> case, paying more for work than what it's worth, especially while
> genuflecting before a false sense of "justice," is money down the
> drain.

In this broader context, the phrase 'paying more for work than what
it's worth' assumes a narrow view of economic worth, and 'a false
sense of "justice,"' seems to imply that the demands of "justice" are
somehow limited to serving those narrow economic concerns.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't good reasons for adopting those
views, but that does not really directly engage the concerns being
raised, nor does it take into account the nature of the institution
under consideration.

The truth is that Harvard and MIT do many things that are completely
irrational if you look at them from a purely economic perspective, and
that's because their ultimate goal, unlike most for-profit businesses,
is not the attainment of profit.  Their fundamental purposes are
supposed to have more to do with serving humanity through the creation
of knowledge.  And they certainly give consideration to concerns like
class inequities.  Could Harvard or MIT really justify in the same
breath doing research into this social ill, while paying its support
staff at a rate that contributes to the very problem it is trying to

The assertion that discussion without budget numbers is "grossly
inappropriate," as jhawk says, is hyperbole, since we know that all
such decisions really come down to values and priorities, especially
in such relatively resource-rich institutions as Harvard and MIT.  

On the other hand, budget numbers would be useful in answering the
question, "What would Harvard have to give up or postpone in order to
be able to afford this?"  Of course, there are lots of possible
answers to that question, which is why it's useful to merely assert
the importance of this particular budget item.  It's the job of the
administration to rearrange lower-priority items in order to
accommodate a raising of priority for this item which the community is

So I'm sympathetic to the plea that workers' families are under
economic hardship -- certainly I would be if I had kids and was
earning significantly less than $10 an hour, especially in this
housing market.  

I don't think it's very useful to argue that Harvard shouldn't give
any consideration to the happiness or economic equity it's providing
for its workers, based on some abstract economic philosophical
principle.  This produces absurdities like managers telling workers in
effect, "I'm sorry, replacing all the silver trim with gold trim is
more important to Harvard than whether or not you can afford to pay
rent this month."

Even if you want to argue in favor of a narrow economic measure of
worth, employee loyalty and morale really do enter into this equation,
so avoiding the issue categorically is extremely unwise.

I suppose one could assume that the administration would have given
the workers a raise if it could afford it, but there seem to be a lot
of angry workers and supporters who disagree with that assessment.  
I've yet to hear anyone make any arguments like, "but to afford this,
we'd need to raise tuition by 10%, which would hurt students more than
it helps workers" but perhaps these will come out in the debate soon.
They'd certainly be more interesting and justifiable.

In the meantime, it sounds like the question of a living wage for
custodial staff is a serious one which the Harvard administration
should being doing some serious hand-wringing about, even if in the
end they are able to find justification for that particular allocation
of resources.  In that sense, public pressure is healthy (assuming
administrators have some modicum of financial and institutional
responsibility, unlike many politicians) since other budget items also
have groups which lobby in favor of them.


Christopher Beland - http://web.mit.edu/beland/www/contact.html
MIT STS/Course 6 (EECS)   -   MIT Athena User Interface Project              

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