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‘Can’t Survive on 5.5’: The Months-Long Printer Strike in 1974

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The Harvard University Printing Office has been shuttered for over 20 years.

But in the spring of 1974, the Office dominated the local news. More than 30 printers — members of the Graphic Arts International Union — began picketing in April after Harvard rejected their proposal calling for a 5.9-percent wage increase plus a weekly $10 across-the-board pay raise by May 1. They were joined by five employees of the Typing and Copy Center on April 24.

For three months, the strikers protested across campus. They rallied at an alumni fund banquet, demonstrated outside a 25th reunion event for the Class of 1949, and garnered support from students, faculty, and local labor leaders.

The strike would receive national attention: John F. Henning, the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, refused to give a speech at Harvard Business School’s trade union program’s graduation ceremony and instead joined the printers on the picket line. The Crimson predicted that Cesar Chavez, the famed labor leader, would picket with the Harvard printers on strike.

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But while the strike dominated the front pages of The Crimson, it has largely faded from memory. After its conclusion in the summer of 1974, just one Harvard Magazine article in 2002 — when the 130-year-old Printing Office closed — provides a readily accessible record.

Additionally, while the union had called on Boston-area printers to boycott the exams, it stopped short of calling for students to join the boycott, in the belief that there would not be enough time to organize a student boycott.

According to some Harvard students at the time, the strike was not at the forefront of most of their minds.

“Labor movement-type activity was very second-order in the minds of students,” said Nicholas B. Lemann ’76, a former Crimson president who covered the strike.

“The impression I took from those years was that number one on the sort of organizing and protest agenda was Vietnam,” Lemann added. “Everything else was in a subordinate position.”

Luther M. Ragin ’77 — who as an undergraduate helped coordinate between student groups who wanted to protest with the workers — said that “the labor issues were more niche,” not “the mass movements that the Vietnam War were or the South African anti-apartheid movement were.”

Still, the strike commanded the attention of many — at least hundreds of students and dozens of faculty, according to Ragin.

Students for a Democratic Society and the New American Movement — student organizations who played an important role in organizing Vietnam War protests just a few years earlier — helped lead the strike. Collaborating with non-Harvard groups such as the Spartacist League and Revolutionary Communist Youths, they circulated petitions and demanded meetings with then-Harvard President Derek C. Bok.

The Harvard Chapter of the Union for Radical Political Economics, whose membership included 25 Harvard professors and graduate students in economics, also supported the strike, arguing that Harvard’s wage increase offer of 5.5 percent was not sufficient given the monthly increase in inflation of 12.8 percent.

The University and John B. Butler, its director of personnel, sought not to cave in to the strikers’ demands, even though outsourcing printing cost Harvard an estimated $12,000 per week for its duration. As workers picketed outside the Printing Office, the University spent $300 a day for a special watch of the Office by three Boston Police Department officers.

“The problem was that they were small,” Ragin said. “Harvard could ignore them because they were small, and even penalize them by basically sourcing printing to other sources.”

This caused the printers to turn to students who were “sympathetic” towards their issues, he added.

Harvard, in response to the strike, argued its 5.5 percent offer was fair and touted the “superior” benefits and stability it offered employees. Workers soon began chanting “Can’t survive on 5.5!” as they rallied on campus.

“It was very clear that this was kind of a precedent that the university was trying to set as a marker or benchmark for its upcoming negotiations with other Harvard labor unions,” Ragin said.

Come final exam season, the strike posed a significant risk to University activities. If there were no printers, the University would not be able to print out tests.

Harvard decided to print them in off-campus shops employing non-union workers, according to the Harvard spokesperson at the time.

After months of action, the strike ended quietly in late July. But the University still faced challenges with the striking printers.

Carl W. Getz Jr., director of the University Printing Office at the time, told The Crimson that formerly striking printers were doing about “half of the volume of printing” post-strike as they were doing before. Getz said that he had to “boost morale” among recently striking employees, and the printing office had to “sell itself within the University” in order to regain business.

While much of the story of the strike and the workers at the printer’s office has been in some ways lost to time, Ragin says its impact was outsized.

“There absolutely was a sense that this was more than just a relatively minor labor dispute,” Ragin said. “It was something that had much broader implications for Harvard staff, and the Harvard community at large.”

—Staff writer Adithya V. Madduri can be reached at adithya.madduri@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Saketh Sundar can be reached at saketh.sundar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @saketh_sundar.

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