Undoing UN Plaza
During his first term in office, Our Mayor crowned
himself with the gilded dome atop a grandly refurbished City
Hall. During his second term, he is attempting to wrap a
redesigned UN Plaza around him, like an ermine cloak of
Not content with remaking the city in his own image,
Willie Brown is taking on the whole world, in the form of
the United Nations. And if we’re not careful, it will be
his face, and not the great round seal of the UN, that will
define the space leading from mid-Market to the Civic
In response to a request by Supervisor Chris Daly, the
Department of Public Works recently compiled an
eight-inch-high stack of documents pertaining to the site.
From these, Brown’s pivotal role in DPW’s renovation
plans becomes clear. It is a role that goes far beyond the
removal of a few benches.
UN Plaza came into being in the mid-1970s as part of a
mid-Market redevelopment project extending all the way from
the Embarcadero to the Civic Center. To create a public
conduit into the official center of San Francisco politics
and culture, architects Lawrence Halprin, Mario Ciampi, and
Carl Warnecke laid out a brick-paved space covering 2.6
acres and lined with rows of plane trees. But the space also
reminds visitors of San Francisco’s position as host to
the conference that gave birth to the United Nations. It’s
rich in international symbolism, with the UN seal engraved
in granite and placed at the center of the plaza.
Most impressive, once upon a time, was the fountain,
composed of more than a hundred granite blocks, arranged in
five clusters to suggest the five major continents. Every
two minutes, jets of water shot into the air, alerting
passersby that the fountain was about to fill — and then
drain — in a re-creation of the ocean’s tidal movement.
More mundanely and more practically, the city pumped off the
water to wash down the plaza and nearby streets. But the
years took their toll, and the fountain fell into disuse.
Nevertheless, a Site Assessment Report prepared by a DPW
landscape architect in September 1999 found that the plaza
was generally doing the jobs it was intended for: it
established a visual identity for the area; offered “a
lively, entertaining destination place” for residents and
visitors; expanded the city’s opportunities for open
space; provided a clean, safe, and reassuring environment;
and made use of an existing transportation system.
If there was a problem, the report suggested, it was that
the United Nations elements had lost some of their earlier
significance. That was a problem easily remedied: fix the
fountain, and connect it visually to the north entrance at
Leavenworth with welcoming signs and banners. Oh yes, and if
you’re feeling really ambitious, move the out-of-scale
statue of Simon Bolivar to another location.
Now take a look at a memorandum from City Engineer Harlan
L. Kelly to project manager Judith Mosqueda, written on
April 20, 2001, outlining steps to be taken in accord with
the mayor’s UN Plaza proposals: remove the benches and
replace them with armless, backless brick structures; work
with the San Francisco Arts Council to have the fountain
removed, perhaps with a statue by Beniamino Bufano
substituted in its place; install a children’s playground
near the Leavenworth entrance. A letter written by Mosqueda
to Michael Lim of Caltrans at about the same time lays out a
rationale for the city’s proposed “improvements”: “United
Nations Plaza resides within a high-crime district of San
Francisco, and its physical condition and uses are
reflective of the neighborhood.”
What’s going on?
The obvious explanation is that somebody doesn’t want
seedy street people cluttering up the area. The media made
much of the removal of the benches on April 28. The proposed
replacements will certainly discourage loitering by
undesirables, although the city disability access
coordinator points out that they will also discourage people
in wheelchairs. But maybe they’re undesirable, too.
The removal of the fountain will discourage loiterers as
well. It will also remove what is now the meeting point for
three streams of foot traffic, or rather, it will reduce
three to two. Today, the fountain forms a nexus for the
official, the commercial, and the residential city.
Tomorrow, a direct line will lead from Market to the Civic
Center, without the scruffy entrance from the Tenderloin.
Today the lawn near the north entrance is used as a place
for conversation and repose. That’s where the playground
will go, removing the one remaining spot for leisurely
congregation and turning attention away from the open
passage into Leavenworth.
The image created by the mayor’s proposals turns upside
down everything the United Nations stands for, making a
mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
inscribed on the plaza floor. If the plaza loses this
underlying theme of idealism and becomes simply a site of
farmers’ markets and antique fairs, carefully supervised
festivals, and transit stops, it will graphically mark the
victory of corporatism in San Francisco.
The interesting thing about the plan is that — aside
from Our Mayor — nobody likes it.
Nancy Peterson, president of the United Nations
Association of San Francisco, has stated several times that
the association is “unalterably opposed” to the idea of
a playground there. City landscape architect John Thomas
concurs: “The need for a playground has not been
established…. A meeting should be held with
representatives of the Tenderloin community, ‘Heart of the
City’ Farmers Market, the Federal Building, 10 UN Plaza,
and any other interested parties to determine if a
playground is desired in that location.”
There are also misgivings about the plan’s
effectiveness. When approached by project manager Mosqueda
about the possibility of redesigning the plaza, Dee Mullen
responded from Lawrence Halprin’s office, pleading a busy
schedule and adding, “Our feeling is that the problem is a
social one and cannot be resolved through design.” Even
the Market Street Association, long the designated bad guy
in attempts to “clean up” the plaza, says it won’t
work: “Simply moving around homeless people is not
acceptable.” The city must find real solutions: “If
housing, employment, substance abuse treatment, mental
health services, storage locations, or medical services are
needed, they will be provided at once.”
So who’s left? A man seeking a monument to his reign.
Spring was a little different in
Cambridge, Massachusetts this year, as Harvard students
occupied the president’s office, seeking a living wage for
university janitors and dining hall workers. The three-week
presence of these young Davids in Massachusetts Hall
received active support from organized labor and national
media attention, as well as their Goliath’s acquiescence
to their demands. Mark Engler places the event in national
and international perspective.
Harvard sit-in victory
A movement continues
After twenty-one days inside the president’s
office at Harvard University, living wage activists have
emerged victorious. Here’s why their sit-in not only shook
the campus, but signaled an important win for progressives
across the country who are fighting globalization battles on
the home front.
Just a month ago Harvard administrators
considered the case of living wages permanently closed. A
report they commissioned last year recommended, conveniently
enough, against raising the pay of many janitors and dining
hall workers above poverty levels, promoting instead a small
expansion of benefits. University President Neil Rudenstine
saw no need for further discussion. So when more than forty
students stormed the offices in Massachusetts Hall with a
demand that all university workers receive $10.25 an hour
plus health insurance, his response amounted to a genteel
version of “we will not negotiate with terrorists.”
All that has changed. On Tuesday, May 8,
the activists, having extracted impressive concessions from
the administration, exited the building to greet hundreds of
cheering allies. Their three-week occupation drew supporters
from throughout the Boston community, attracted national
media attention to the plight of those exploited by the
world’s richest university, and put discussion of economic
injustice at the center of campus life.
In the end Harvard agreed to a settlement
that, while allowing it to avoid total capitulation,
substantively yields to the student demands. The university
is instituting a moratorium on subcontracting and it will
immediately address the issue of health care benefits.
Additionally, Harvard has committed itself to expedite
contract negotiations with the Hotel and Restaurant
Employees (HERE, Local 26) and with the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU, Local 254). Harvard is willing to
make pay increases for custodians that result from these
negotiations retroactive — raises will take effect as if
they were granted to coincide with the end of the sit-in.
The agreement does not immediately set a
single living wage minimum for all workers. Instead, a
faculty-led committee with strong worker and student
representation will collectively determine and recommend a
final salary. This gives Harvard some wiggle room. But, as
Amy Offner, a leading activist in the campaign, explains,
“It’s an agreement that will implement a living wage in
six months to a year if it’s done right — and we’re
going to make sure it’s done right.”
The campaign certainly has the power to do
so. The sit-in won because it mobilized support from well
beyond its student activist core. Workers staged massive
rallies, community members came to sleep out in the imposing
tent city that sprouted in Harvard Yard, and newly energized
students committed themselves in ways normally unthinkable
at semester’s end. “Once it got going,” Offner says,
“people came out of the woodwork to put in fifteen-hour
days in support of the campaign.”
By showcasing the growing push for living
wages nationally, the sit-in highlighted an important
example of how the forces combating corporate globalization
at major trade summits can fuel campaigns to win the same
fight at the local level. Indeed, it is the type of
coalition that formed around the living wage issue that
gives the Harvard protest a wider significance from a social
movement perspective. The sit-in demonstrated the vitality
of a unique student-labor alliance that has formed in past
Unions have nurtured connections with
student activists as part of their resurgence under the
national leadership of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
Through the Organizing Institute, the AFL-CIO has worked to
recruit a new generation of organizers and has enlisted
thousands of student activists and young workers in “Union
Summer” internships since 1996. UNITE, the garment workers’
union, invested heavily in the fledgling anti-sweatshop
crusade, providing institutional support which helped that
movement explode to prominence.
Labor’s investment has paid off most
visibly in a wave of building occupations that have taken
place on campuses. Over the past two years, anti-sweatshop
campaigns have produced sit-ins at the University of
Michigan, the University of Iowa, SUNY-Albany, the
University of Wisconsin, Wesleyan, and the University of
Kentucky. Last year, a seventeen-day building occupation at
Johns Hopkins addressing janitors’ wages foreshadowed the
Harvard students’ takeover of Massachusetts Hall.
The Harvard living wage campaign was
initiated by a student group called the Progressive Student
Labor Movement (PSLM), an organization that was a clear
product of the labor movement’s outreach. Several of the
members that founded the group in 1997, as well as three of
the students inside the administrative offices during the
sit-in, were Union Summer alumni.
While Harvard represents one of the first
major battles around this issue that was based on student
mobilization, unions have long been at the fore of the
rapidly growing living wage movement. A first major victory
took place in Baltimore in 1994, where community and labor
activists won a wage ordinance mandating higher pay for
low-wage workers under public contracts. Since then, over 50
living wage measures have been adopted in cities across the
country. Currently, progressive coalitions are fighting for
ordinances in 75 additional cities.
As with their outreach to students,
support for living wage struggles is part of the revitalized
labor movement’s strategy to connect with a larger
progressive community. Bruce Nissen, program director of the
Center for Labor Research at Florida International
University and a veteran of several living wage battles,
argues: “For the national AFL-CIO, this is part of
building a much stronger union presence in the community —
creating a labor movement that benefits the general welfare.”
That’s why during the Harvard sit-in the
AFL-CIO sent in top retainers to help broker the deal with
the administration, why President John Sweeney stood among
the VIPs present at a huge rally last week, and why labor
leaders returned to campus to cordially hold the door for
protesters leaving Massachusetts Hall.
The enthusiasm at the top levels of the
labor organization only hints at the tireless investment of
local unions in community-based drives. In the case of
Harvard, dozens of campus workers spoke at demonstrations
and gave testimonials to the press. Members of the Hotel and
Restaurant Employees Union (HERE, Local 26) vowed publicly
that they would not accept any settlement that included
disciplinary censure of the students.
Although living wage measures initially
targeted local governments, new laws seek to affect a wide
range of subcontractors, as well as businesses receiving tax
abatements. The student actions at Johns Hopkins and Harvard
were unique in expanding the fight to take on individual
private employers. Harvard, sitting atop a massive endowment
of almost $20 billion, proved a particularly good target:
students effectively attracted media by contrasting the
university’s privileged mystique with its miserly
treatment of low-paid workers.
Similar to the way in which globalization
protests have sparked unlikely “red-green” alliances
between workers and environmentalists, the living wage
campaigns have pulled together impressive coalitions on the
domestic scene. The Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now (ACORN), the Service Employees International
Union (SEIU), and the Coalition for the Homeless led the
wage fight in Chicago; hotel workers, Greens, and renters’
rights activists united in Santa Monica; interfaith groups,
Gray Panthers, social service providers, and third party
advocates have joined elsewhere.
Some notable living wage campaigns have
started using civil disobedience and mass action tactics to
leverage political change. In addition to the university
sit-ins, the Chicago campaign mobilized impressive crowds of
15,000 for its marches. And HERE workers were arrested after
blocking traffic in actions that were a part of the Santa
The sit-in at Harvard will help to make
campuses leading locations for the expansion of the living
wage movement. Student-labor alliances have only
strengthened after mass demonstrations like Seattle’s,
where the two constituencies took to the streets together.
The interaction of these groups could not be more
significant, especially for globalization activists seeking
to ground themselves in local campaigns.
In large part, the success of the protests
at large trade summits can be measured by the extent to
which people who are energized and inspired by the
large-scale events commit to combating abuses of corporate
power taking place “in their own backyards.” Organizers
working to encourage action around such issues as
sweatshops, organic farming, welfare reform, prison
expansion, and demilitarization are all striving to make the
connection between community and international affairs.
The living wage is another example of an
issue making that connection, and it is a crucial one.
Students publicizing the drastic inequalities present on
their increasingly corporate campuses go far in asserting
that poverty wages are unacceptable — at home or abroad.
Universities subcontracting maintenance and security jobs to
low-paying firms respond to the same impulse that motivates
the Gap to have clothing made in Salvadoran sweatshops.
Confronting this injustice, the growing living wage movement
forms a vigorous part of the grassroots resistance to
globalization’s “race to the bottom,” wherein CEO
salaries skyrocket while those at the bottom of the labor
market struggle to survive.
Taken as a whole, the wage measures that
have already been passed represent some of the most tangible
progressive gains of the past decade. The campaigns are at
once pragmatic — concretely benefiting the working poor
— and visionary — suggesting what Left coalitions can
accomplish as groups begin to unite and force change.
It wasn’t an enlightened epiphany that
made university officials see the justice of paying its
workers decent wages. It was power. The students’ civil
disobedience forced a reconsideration of the living wage
issue, and the community’s amazing solidarity made putty
of the administration’s once inflexible bargaining
One thing is sure: the lesson won’t be
lost on students at other campuses who, along with community
and labor allies, will be looking to turn one successful
sit-in into a persistent challenge to economic injustice.
an independent writer and activist from Des Moines, Iowa. He
has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace
and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, as well as the
Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University.
For more information, consult the Harvard
Living Wage Campaign.