At last, they're sitting in again

In America, campus protest is back - and this time, the campaign is not for faraway peasants, but fo

The whiff of revolution hangs over Harvard. The rebels, backed by some of the biggest names in American academe, are launching an assault on economic disparity - and are watching as similar action in support of the unskilled and the underpaid disrupts campuses nationwide.

Gone are the days of student apathy. Coast to coast, starting with the Ivy League colleges, youthful protesters have forced their university administrations to think about America's underclass, in a movement that has highlighted a flourishing union between student and labour activists.

Last summer, 21 distinctly ill-kempt students staggered out of Massachusetts Hall, the normally pristine office of Harvard's president, to rapturous applause, with grimy sleeping bags and rucksacks in tow. Holed up in the small red-brick building, they had pulled off one of the longest ever sit-ins at the university. For three weeks, these self-appointed defenders of low-wage immigrant workers had occupied the heart of America's educational establishment, and briefed anyone who cared to listen about the exploitation of cheap, unskilled labour in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world.

Their message, plastered on banners in the shabby tent city spread out around Harvard Yard, was simple: "The world's wealthiest university pays poverty wages." "We are fighting for those who can't defend themselves," they said - and, in a nice evocation of cakes and Marie Antoinette: "Workers can't eat prestige."

About the latter, there was something particularly poignant. Harvard's motto is "Veritas". As the likes of Senator Ted Kennedy were quick to note, the sight of some of America's most privileged citizens identifying with some of its least privileged - in this case, the men and women who work in the dining halls, clean their lodgings and act as custodians - touched a chord.

"We feel strongly," Maple Razda, the gangly ringleader, told me on his 18th day without bed or bath, "that an employer like Harvard should stand for different values - decent values."

The "living wage" campaign, he said, was a moral issue not unlike the student campaigns against investment in apartheid-era South Africa and against the Vietnam war. The rebels had simply become the voice of migrant labourers too intimidated or hampered by language to articulate their demands.

"What is the administration going to do?" Razda asked from his seat of occupation. "Use force to kick us out? . . . I don't think so. We have just about every local, and several national, unions behind us."

Days later, the university's exasperated administration placed a temporary ban on the outsourcing of jobs to subcontractors, a pernicious practice widely blamed for the appalling salaries, benefits and work conditions of low-wage workers across America. The administration also agreed to the establishment of a committee - comprising an unlikely alliance of Harvard executives, students and union reps - to probe the institution's controversial employment practices.

A 100-page report, since produced by the committee, is sympathetic to the workers' plight. Harvard's new president, Larry Summers, Bill Clinton's no-nonsense Treasury secretary, has pledged to deliver his verdict on the committee's findings: the university's responsibility, the report concluded, was to be a good employer, not suck the labour market for all it is worth.

"What has happened here - students backing workers - has changed the conversation between employers and employees," said Emilou Maclean, a "living wage" campaigner. "The issues of privatisation, subcontracting and race are not issues that are specific to Harvard," the fresh-faced undergraduate said. "They are national, and actually go way beyond this country's borders."

For the rebels, the bottom line was clear: if the universities see their role as righting social injustice, of being moral arbiters in times of crisis, shouldn't Harvard be leading the way?

After all, said Maclean somewhat sternly, at least 400 of its lowest-paid workers were earning as little as $6.25 an hour. Many were living off food stamps, the victims of outsourcing and other cut-throat policies. Some were forced to hold down three different jobs to get by. Their working day often began before dawn.

Harvard has an endowment of more than $18bn. In the three years since the students began their campaign, the university's assets, through stock market investments, had grown by $6bn. The campaigners calculated that giving the workers $10.35 an hour, the living wage as regulated by the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, would cost less than 1 per cent of the annual interest raked in by the endowment.

With his much-flaunted MBA from Harvard's famous business school, George W Bush should surely be the first to understand, said Maclean. "You'll see," she snarled as horns beeped over the ecstatic tent city in the Yard, "this movement will grow."

And so it has. The very day the Harvard rebels ended their sit-in, others at the University of Connecticut successfully took up the blue-collar cause, this time in support of increased wages for janitors and a ban on outsourcing.

The students say the "living wage" campaign resonates precisely because it is so close to home: the workers it sets out to protect are not only people they mix with every day, but the workers' salaries derive from the tuition fees that often come from the students' own pockets. "We don't want to be part of the injustice," said Razda.

The activism is also indicative of a rising tide of youth mili- tancy across the US. Driven by mounting anger over corporate-controlled globalisation and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, a counter-culture is burgeoning on campuses - thanks, in large part, to organised-labour activists who have linked up with civil rights groups and the religious left.

Increasingly, it is campuses that air stateside grievances about how America conducts its business at home and abroad. The unions have not been slow to pick up the pulse. "No one at Harvard was talking about a living wage until students and workers joined together," said Erik Beach, who also took part in the historic sit-in. "Our aim is to forge an even stronger student-labour coalition."

As that alliance has grown, so has the number of students who enroll at trade union summer schools to train in protest tactics. Some, like Maple Razda, are graduates of Union Summer, a popular, month-long immersion course in campaigning and labour history organised by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), the country's biggest confederation of unions.

Although they have vastly different styles, labour activists say that the students' enthusiasm is infectious. Equally, campus leaders are just as eager to get involved with real-world battles for economic fairness.

Last year, the AFL-CIO was forced to offer three specialised, ten-week summer internships to deal with the increase in student demand. While one course catered exclusively for future religious leaders, another sent students to help organise campaigns outside America.

Bemused labour organisers are discovering that student activism has no problem attracting newcomers. Similar "living wage" campaigns have erupted on campuses in the Middle East and Asia. Support for the Harvard students has poured in from like-minded peers as far away as Japan, Australia and Sweden. In recent months, lecturers and students at universities in Israel and South Africa have launched similarly strident campaigns for menial workers to be given a minimum, living wage.

Initially, said Alex Horowitz, another Harvard campaigner, it was the anti-sweatshop movement that focused minds overseas. Students at more than 100 colleges have signed up to the struggle to end ties with such controversial establishments in the third world.

"It would be totally hypocritical for us to rally around workers on campus and do nothing to end sweatshop labour in developing countries," Horowitz stressed. "There are thousands out there who work in slave conditions to sew the Harvard caps and tracksuits that we all wear." Students had begun to "feel really bad" flaunting that kind of privileged status.

The unions, starting with the garment and textile workers' organisation Unite, have ploughed tens of thousands of dollars into United Students Against Sweatshops. On many campuses, activism that began as campaigning for a living wage has metamorphosed into other struggles for social justice. Last December - in a move viewed as the biggest coup yet for college activists - America's gargantuan department store Ames announced that it would be boycotting imports from Burma after intense pressure from the Free Burma Coalition, a campaign started at the University of Wisconsin in 1995.

The activists knew they had struck a chord when the voice of the establishment, the Washington Post, splashed the story. As Kirstin Downey Grimsley, the paper's chief business correspondent, felt fit to note: "The Free Burma campaign is another illustration of growing activism against alleged labour abuses around the world, which critics view as the dark side of globalisation . . . [The coalition] has chapters on more than 50 college campuses nationwide and thousands of student members."

The events of 11 September served only to turn up the heat. For the rebels at Harvard, 11 September proved the point that there is a reason for greater social equity: it not only keeps the wrath of campus workers at bay, but ultimately makes the world a safer place.

That, says Razda, is a message the revolutionaries intend to go on spreading. His very own documentary about the Harvard sit-in, the aptly titled Occupation, has started screening across America. Its first showing, at the Martin Luther King Labor Center, marked what could be a fiery launch in Memphis of the campaign for a living wage.

Helena Smith, a 2001 Nieman fellow at Harvard University, is a foreign correspondent for the Guardian