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When College Campuses Hated Unions: Then and Now

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One of the least told stories in American labor histories is the relationship between college campuses and labor unions. Today, college and university administrators are among the greatest unionbusters in the nation. We saw Long Island University’s attempt to destroy their faculty union a couple of weeks ago. Right now, the 14-school Pennsylvania public regional system is forcing their faculty close to a strike deadline over the same issues of undermining the basic rights of faculty. Private universities have gone to the mat to ensure that graduate students don’t unionize. Unionized food and cleaning workers are fired and the operations outsourced to Aramark and Sodexo.

Not much has changed over the years. A century ago, college students were unionbusting shock troops, frequently used as scabs. Not only at Harvard, but definitely at Harvard.

Consider Harvard’s relations with the mills to the north, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Much of the Lowell family’s wealth had derived from the mills. Those who labored there, mostly immigrants, many of them women and children, worked horrible hours, with poor ventilation, frequent industrial accidents, respiratory ailments and little prospect of promotion.

Harvard’s Lowell had his own solution to the problem: He offered his students (Harvard was then all boys) relief from the upcoming mid-year exams if they would saddle up, arm themselves and guard the capitalists’ property. And this they did, forming a militia – Calvary Troop B — whose intent was to harass the workers and break the strike.

Such an expression of anti-labor sentiments was hardly unique on the Harvard campus. In August, 1919, when the Boston Police went out on strike, Lowell again called on some 200 Harvard students to pick up the duties of the police. That same year a number of Harvard students acted as strike breakers in the Boston Telephone Operators strike. The notion that strikers had legitimate grievances was alien to much of Harvard’s governing body, not to mention many of its students.

Worse was yet to come. The week before Christmas, in 1929, as the Great Depression took hold of the country, the “scrubwomen” who worked as maids cleaning up Harvard’s Widener Library asked that the university pay what the state said was due them – 37 cents — or two extra pennies — an hour. Many of these women – mostly Irish immigrants — were in their fifties and sixties, had been in Harvard’s employ for decades, and, as widows or spinsters, were their own sole source of income. They had waxed the floors of the libraries, tidied up the shelves, cleaned up after students, and polished the brass.

But rather than grant them two pennies extra an hour in compliance with the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Commission, President Lowell fired them the week before Christmas without notice, and without payment to see them over the holidays. They were now destitute, some finding themselves out on the street.

For college students, beating up strikers was fun. I mostly know of this from the University of Washington, which has a similar history of empowering students to commit violence against strikers in the early 20th century.

And for Harvard this history remains relevant as it has forced its food service workers onto the picket lines. But hey, at least poor Harvard can still call on the Boston Globe to produce hackish pro-1% arguments.

The fact that Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War who is currently oppressing her own workers, many of whom are African-American, is to her eternal shame.

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