Harvard Works Because We Do
In April 2001, Harvard undergraduates drew national media attention when they staged a sit-in for the Living Wage Campaign, an effort to induce the university to pay its workers the same living wage guaranteed by the city of Cambridge. (Harvard had been cutting wages even while its endowment tripled.) Halpern was among the 50 students who stormed the hall housing the president’s office, and this revealing volume of blue-collar narratives in the tradition of Studs Terkel’s classic Working, accompanied by large, b&w photographs of the subjects, grew out of his passionate activism on their behalf. “You want to know about regular working stiffs? You want to know what I do? I unloaded from a truck probably every book you ever read at Harvard,” answered loading dock shipper Gary Newmark, Halpern’s first interview subject. With stories in their own words alongside proud but weary and unsmiling portraits of the chefs, line servers, custodians, guards and dishwashers who feed and clean up after an elite faculty and student body, Halpern puts a face on the daunting statistics facing America’s minimum-wage workers, who must labor 80 hours a week to cover basic living expenses, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Here, we meet Rachel Herman, a chef at the Signet Society of Arts and Letters who describes her cooking as an art form. An anonymous Haitian custodian tells of the small humiliations of the job-his supervisor leaves pennies on the ground to make sure he cleans carefully. Bill Brooks, a custodian at the president’s office for 30 years, describes work as escape from homesickness for the small Tennessee hometown he left decades ago. Though the book’s format is not original, the rarefied Harvard setting makes America’s class differences especially stark.