The campus discourse surrounding the HUDS strike demonstrates our political division
Harvard University Dining Service workers have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if Harvard and HUDS fail to come to an agreement regarding wages and healthcare plans in the near future. Harvard is attempting to adopt a new healthcare plan that would increase costs for HUDS workers. In addition, many HUDS workers currently receive less than $35,000 a year and are laid off without unemployment insurance during breaks. The current income level of these HUDS workers, according to scholars at MIT, is below what is required to live for one adult and one child in Middlesex County, though Harvard believes the wages to be competitive. Consequently, HUDS workers are demanding a $35,000 minimum income and an affordable healthcare plan, which Harvard is reluctant to provide. In response, several student groups have launched a large-scale campaign in support of the strike. The Student Labor Action Movement put up posters urging students to sign a petition, the editorial board of The Crimson issued a written statement in support of HUDS, and many students have organized events in which HUDS workers speak out about their experiences.
I wholeheartedly appreciate the hard work of HUDS workers and support their right to strike, and I hope that Harvard will accept the reasonable demands that HUDS put forth. Yet while I sympathize with HUDS’s cause and I admire my classmates’ passion in fighting for the interests of those less fortunate, I take issue with the campus discourse regarding the strike. Activists in support of the strike have done an admirable job in illustrating the hardships that HUDS workers face, thereby poignantly teaching Harvard undergraduates how the other half lives. But mirroring a larger divide in this country’s political discourse, the campus discourse has little idea of how the other half thinks. There are many compelling arguments against the strike that warrant intellectual examination, none of which I have heard.
There are those who argue that such reservation based on intellectual scrutiny is both cynical and sinister, akin to a bystander’s apathy towards those who are in dire need. Yet I would argue that not thinking about the counterarguments—not relentlessly interrogating every inch of truth—would be a disservice to this institution which bonds us to HUDS workers and which HUDS workers have so faithfully served for years.
The vocal proponents of the strike have made two things clear. First, it is an injustice that HUDS workers should have to live below a living wage without adequate healthcare. Second, Harvard (which recently raised $7 billion) has more than enough resources to rectify this injustice. Neither claim is controversial. However, it is unclear why Harvard should be responsible for rectifying this injustice. Even if Harvard does have this moral obligation, it is still unclear that accepting the demands of HUDS is the most socially optimal solution.
Does Harvard have an additional obligation to its dining hall workers? Harvard has offered a host of its own arguments to The Boston Globe, to which few campus groups have publicly offered a rebuttal. Harvard maintains that its dining hall workers are “among the highest paid in the region” for commensurate work. Regarding its new healthcare plan that shifts burden to workers, Harvard cites rising healthcare costs and notes that the new healthcare plan has been approved by other unions of university employees, adding that the plan increases healthcare cost by “$11 a month” for the average worker, though the figure may understate the substantial costs ($40-$100) of emergency room visits. Merely stating that Harvard has added $7 billion in a pool of $37 billion that Harvard has very limited access to is not a convincing argument. A more powerful one needs to properly refute the reasons that Harvard has provided, yet the campus discourse does not seem to be engaging with these.
Is it actually socially optimal for Harvard to accept the wage and healthcare demands of HUDS? To examine the question, we need only to visit the start of the century, where Harvard students of yesteryear staged a sit-in in favor of a $10.25 minimum wage for Harvard employees. In the aftermath, the Harvard Magazine invited economists and political theorists for their opinions. Professor N. Gregory Mankiw put forth a compelling case for why it is not socially optimal for Harvard to support a living wage. Mankiw points out three things. First, if Harvard were to provide a higher wage, it would feel budgetary pressure to hire fewer workers, which may leave many unemployed. Moreover, a higher wage attracts more skilled workers, which may end up displacing the less skilled ones. Second, Harvard having the resources is irrelevant to the debate. Instead, Harvard must make choices—it faces tradeoffs at the margin in economist-speak. More funding going to its dining staff necessarily means that less could go the faculty, graduate students, or Harvard’s own growth. Recognizing the tradeoff makes the issue less clean-cut. What could get cut if Harvard’s expenses go up? Third, Mankiw argues that Harvard’s raison d’être—creating and disseminating knowledge—takes precedence over its other responsibilities, including those that promote important social objectives like income equality. Harvard has a responsibility to pay its workers enough to attract employment, but demanding that Harvard pay more takes resources away from Harvard’s central mission.
One may dismiss Mankiw’s argument: How could a wealthy, white male Republican know anything about the hardships that HUDS workers undergo? Yet this kind of ad hominem attack misses the point—Professor Mankiw may not know much about the hardships of working class, but he does know much about economics, which is what his arguments (at least the first two) are grounded on. His arguments remain highly relevant and warrant a response—and not a response appealing only to compassion—an econo-a-econo response appealing to intellect. But Mankiw’s arguments are not even represented in the discourse today, nor has a response been offered – at least none that I have seen. Like the country at large, we are so blind to how the other half thinks that we refuse to even engage in debate. In fact, had one evaluated Professor Mankiw’s reasoning, a response only takes some research. In the same Harvard Magazine issue, Alan Krueger, a labor economist, offers some economic insights countering Mankiw’s market-oriented view. Krueger shows that one could both be progressive and engage with the counter arguments with intellectual rigor—but, alas, that was the pre-tribalism year of 2001.
The recent campus discourse of the HUDS strike is apt at demonstrating the hardships of the other Harvard; it is effective at eliciting compassion from the concerned citizens of tomorrow; and it is merciless at exposing and critiquing the darker side of Harvard the institution. Yet just as it is laden with an appeal to empathy and emotion, the discourse is woefully deficient in rational scrutiny and in intellectual charity to people with whom we disagree. But charity to the other side and scrutiny of our own do matter, even if we are all on the same side. If we continue to have shallow discourse, then we will become unable to understand how others can reasonably disagree with us. We may even begin to demonize those who are not of our tribe, mistaking their reasoned arguments for bigoted venom. If we truly want progressivism to prevail, then it is not enough for us to understand how the other half lives. We must also appreciate how the other half thinks.