Winning a Sit-in

California university students have occupied buildings repeatedly to fight big budget cuts and tuition increases. How can these dramatic confrontations achieve their planners' goals? A former Harvard occupier offers lessons learned from their sit-in nine years ago. Photo: metromoxie.

Editor’s Note: Whether at Canadian auto plants or California universities, taking the place over is an increasingly popular way to fight the dramatic sacrifices demanded in this recession. Although a student sit-in is different from a workplace takeover, there is much to learn from the painstaking planning that went into the Harvard Living Wage Campaign’s successful building occupation in 2001. Here former Harvard student Amy Offner lays out the how-to's in detail. Many of the lessons would apply in a workplace sit-in: the creation of an inside team and an outside team, the need for contingency plans, relentless media work, ways to bring supporters to the building to provide a presence outside, how to negotiate an end to the sit-in.

In 2001 the Harvard Living Wage Campaign gained international attention when, after two-and-a-half years of organizing, student members staged a 21-day sit-in in the school’s main administration building. The sit-in catapulted the national living wage movement to the front pages of mainstream papers, and, combined with another year of intense organizing, exacted significant concessions from Harvard. Today, all workers on the university campus earn a minimum of roughly $11 per hour, and contracted-out and non-union workers are guaranteed the same wages and benefits as directly-hired, unionized workers.

The sit-in alone did not produce these gains, and no one should take away the lesson that a sit-in will produce a victory without tremendous effort both before and afterwards. That said, the sit-in itself was a crucial event for the campaign, and a complicated undertaking. Preparation was critical.

A NEED FOR ESCALATION

By February 2001, many members of the living wage campaign agreed that if we couldn’t exert some new forms of pressure, the campaign was in danger of dying. We called a meeting to decide how to keep the campaign going, and left with a tentative consensus to hold a sit-in that spring.

The next months were devoted to preparation. First, we worked to solidify the student support we had built for the living wage so that students would support us, and not the administration, when we escalated the campaign. Throughout the campaign, we had spent hours every week going door to door to talk with students; in the months before the sit-in, we intensified that effort. When we canvassed we brought a petition, but used it mostly as a tool for starting a conversation. We also brought a fact sheet, announcements about upcoming events (excluding the sit-in, of course), and first-person worker testimonies. We held teach-ins to answer people’s questions, and internal teach-ins to make sure that campaign members knew enough to answer others’ questions.

We also thought about ways to prevent two responses that would kill the action: we didn’t want the administration to arrange a police bust the minute we entered the building, and we also didn’t want them to try to wait us out without negotiating or conceding. We decided that the best way to prevent these responses was to focus enormous media attention on the administration from the moment the sit-in began. As one method of attracting the media, we contacted public figures and, without mentioning the sit-in, lined them up to do various events with us during the first few days we would be inside. Then we could publicize that series of public events, which would serve as protection for the sit-in. We already had a good press list and had secured both local and national media coverage for past events. We arranged for a writer from the New York Times to enter the building with us.

To increase pressure on the administration, we did extensive outreach to other student, faculty, labor, community, and religious organizations. Student-labor groups on other campuses agreed to do solidarity actions after the sit-in started and to call the Harvard administration on our behalf. Other groups agreed to offer public support as well. It was key for us to have many different constituencies applying pressure to the administration.

We were extremely serious with people when we described the action, and told them not to leak the information. It helped enormously that many of the groups we were working with had done equally serious actions in the past. In addition, the administration underestimated us. They never believed we would sit in and never bothered sending a spy to our meetings. If they had made a serious effort, they could have found out—and we didn’t know whether they had. So we made contingency plans: we chose three possible buildings, and if on sit-in day the administration had all of them guarded, we would do other kinds of civil disobedience and potentially try the sit-in later.

We knew that we needed our own channels for disseminating information about the sit-in, since we could not count on the media to be accurate or sympathetic. In the weeks before the sit-in, we revamped our website so that as soon as the sit-in began, it would become a special sit-in page with frequently updated information.

We produced an internal fact sheet to help members answer questions about the campaign and about civil disobedience, as well as a statement called “Why We Are Sitting In.” This document explained why we thought this pressure on the administration was necessary, presented our demand for a living wage, and invited people to a forum on the first night of the sit-in. We agreed that campaign members would distribute the statement to every student and faculty member on campus as soon as the sit-in began. We wanted to make sure that people’s first information about the sit-in came from us.

TWO TEAMS

We formed an “inside team” that would enter the building and an “outside team” to coordinate support activities. While it was crucial that the outside team not be seen as less important, we strongly encouraged everyone who was willing to go inside to do so.

Before asking people to firmly commit to a team, we needed to nail down our demand and the amount of time we were willing to stay in the building. None of us imagined that the sit-in would last longer than five days, and we each committed to that length of time. It was important that we went in with an unbreakable commitment to five days. Without firm promises to stay in together for the same length of time, trust and solidarity could have broken down.

In the weeks preceding the sit-in, everyone officially joined a team. Each team held one or two long meetings to plan its activities in detail. Then we checked back in to make sure our plans made sense together.

There were 48 people on the inside team. The team’s plan included:

1. Splitting into groups to seize different areas of the building. One group was in charge of holding the bathroom--an essential task.

2. Planning to make ourselves appear impossible to remove. The team would throw backpacks, food, and sleeping bags everywhere, link arms, and chant relentlessly. We agreed that if the police tried to remove or target anyone, everyone would shout “We will not be divided!” and surround that person. Students at other schools have used bicycle locks to chain themselves to furniture.

3. Everyone agreed to bring enough food for five days in their backpacks. In fact, we underestimated the amount we’d need; bring more food than you expect to eat.

4. We decided not to physically remove administrators from the building, as we thought that our presence alone was as much disruption as our community would support. Anyone who wants to remove administrators should be ready to be charged with assault and battery, even if they do nothing more than hold someone’s elbow and walk them out of the building.

5. The team brought letters for the clerical workers in the building, saying that we were not there to disrupt their work or frighten them, and that we respected them.

6. We brought notices for the police stating our demand, that we intended to remain in the building until the demand was met, and that we were committed to nonviolence, didn’t have drugs with us, and would not destroy property.

The 30 people on the outside team also had a plan:

1. To make it easy for the community to participate, we wanted to have two major events at the same time every day, a noon rally and an 8 pm vigil. Two members with public speaking experience took responsibility for lining up speakers and performers for the two daily events. We also wanted a 24-hour picket in front of the building to show support and prevent a police bust. And for the first two nights, we set up panels with big-name speakers.

2. Three people who had experience writing press releases and talking to reporters formed a press team. Throughout the sit-in, their job was to write and send out one or two press releases every day, call reporters to place stories, and make sure that one of them was in front of the building at all times with copies of a press packet.

3. One person took responsibility for email communication. Before the sit-in, everyone on both teams sent her a spreadsheet with the name, email address, and phone number of literally every person they knew. She created an email list of thousands of people, and within minutes of the inside team’s entry into the building, she sent all those people an announcement that a sit-in had begun involving a friend of theirs. People in the Boston area were asked to come to the building immediately to show support. Every morning thereafter, she sent an update to the same list and responded to messages in the campaign’s general email account.

4. As soon as the sit-in began, several outside team members phoned all the people who were on the mass email list, telling them which of their friends were inside and explaining how urgent it was that they come to the building immediately, or contact the administration if they were not nearby.

5. A few members were responsible for getting a sound system set up in front of the building as soon as the sit-in began.

6. One member was responsible for making a poster every morning with that day’s schedule of events, to encourage people to come by the building all day.

7. We designated police liaisons, choosing people who could be firm but not combative.

8. A few people on the outside team entered the building with the inside team but wore signs around their necks saying “Legal Observer.” Their job was to write down everything that happened inside and, just by their presence, help keep the police under control. They left the building at the end of the first day. On the outside, a different person was our liaison with lawyers.

9. To maintain the 24-hour picket line in front, each of us signed up for blocks of time to be there on the first day or two.

10. The outside team agreed not to get arrested, because the sit-in would collapse if we were stuck in jail.

FINAL STEPS

While the teams were getting organized, all of us went through a civil disobedience training together, and we contacted some activist lawyers who could offer us free legal aid if we needed it. (To find sympathetic lawyers, call the National Lawyers Guild. For a civil disobedience trainer, contact the Ruckus Society, which is connected with trainers in many areas.)

All of us bought cell phones so that the inside and outside teams could communicate. To keep costs down, many of us bought phones and a one-month plan. At the end of the sit-in, we returned the phones for refunds and only had to pay for the month of minutes. Buy a plan with more minutes than you think you’ll need.

A day or two before the sit-in, we ran an op-ed in the campus newspaper to prepare people for an escalation.

Finally, we took steps to make sure the administration did not find out about the sit-in. We had good evidence that the administration read the email of at least a few members of the campaign, so we had everyone create web-based email accounts (yahoo, hotmail, etc.) and kept all email discussion on those accounts. As the sit-in approached, many new people began coming to meetings, and we were afraid that someone might be a mole. For that reason, the group entrusted a handful of long-time campaign members with the responsibility of choosing the building, the time of day, and the entrance strategy. The day we entered the building, only those few people knew these details.

GETTING IN

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Here’s how we got inside. Harvard has several administrative buildings, and because we thought the administration might have learned about the sit-in, we didn’t know whether any of them would be guarded. The handful of members chosen to design the entrance strategy prioritized three buildings according to the centrality of their location and how close the target offices were to ground level. We learned the layout of each building, identifying all entrances, staircases, and elevators. Then we asked five or six members of the outside team who were not part of the planning process to serve as scouts on the day the sit-in was to start. We told each one to stand at a particular spot near one of the buildings and to carry their cell phone. Their job was to look for cops.

The day of the sit-in, the inside team gathered in a basement next door to our first-choice building, Massachusetts Hall, trickling into the basement one by one over the space of an hour so they wouldn’t draw attention. When everyone was together, a member who knew the entrance strategy called the scouts near Mass Hall and asked if they saw any police in front of the building. If they did, the inside team would call the scouts at the second-choice building, and the third if necessary. However, the scouts by Mass Hall did not see anything but a police car at the other end of the Yard. So four members of the inside team left the basement.

Two of them stayed outside the door of Mass Hall, and two walked into the building, telling the receptionist that they were there to deliver a letter from a U.S. senator urging the university to implement a living wage (they actually did have such a letter). The real purpose of having them walk in was to make sure the building was not packed with cops. When they saw that it wasn’t, they signaled to the two people outside, who signaled to everyone in the basement next door to run in. The four people at Mass Hall held the building’s two sets of doors open for everyone to rush in. One of the scouts in the Yard stood in front of the police car to keep the cops away from the building. Simultaneously, another member who had a car drove up and blocked the gate that police would try to drive through to get to Mass Hall from the street.

As soon as people were inside, a designated member of the inside team called a designated member of the outside team, who was with the rest of the outside team in a dorm room nearby. The outside team ran over to the building and joined the scouts, who had started the 24-hour picket line. Within a few minutes, thousands of people had received the e-mail announcing the sit-in, “Why We Are Sitting In” was going up all over campus, people were getting calls saying their friend was inside the building, we had a sound system set up outside, and workers, union reps, and reporters were on their way to the building. Within a few hours, all the administrators had left the building, and only one even tried to go back in for the next three weeks.

STRESS AND OTHER CHALLENGES

Planning the sit-in, while exciting, was extremely stressful for everyone involved. All of us were attending long meetings nearly every night as the sit-in approached. There were hundreds of decisions that needed to be made, and everyone felt that the stakes were high. Some of us were working all hours on the sit-in for months without being able to tell our families or roommates. Other groups planning a sit-in or a sit-down strike should expect very high levels of anxiety and think about ways to take the edge off as a group.

Planning the sit-in didn’t just create anxiety for individuals; it affected the group’s entire functioning in ways for which we were not prepared. From the beginning, our campaign had aimed to function in a non-hierarchical, democratic way. We did not always succeed, and sometimes we failed miserably, but we strove to distribute knowledge and responsibility broadly among ourselves, to make every level of decision-making accessible to every member of the campaign, and to make decisions by consensus. We learned, however, that times of crisis can exacerbate problems and inequalities within an organization.

The sit-in preparations created a tremendously stratified power structure within the campaign. People who already had more than their fair share of power acquired even more as urgent decisions needed to be made quickly, sometimes in meetings where there were so many new people that it seemed necessary to defer to older members, and sometimes outside meetings as new issues arose and had to be handled by whoever noticed them. Problems with decision-making and power inequalities within the group persisted straight through the sit-in and weakened the group in the long run. Any group planning a sit-in or a sit-down strike should be very attentive to problems with internal functioning.

THE SIT-IN

On the inside, the major task of the first few days was just holding the space. The police did not try to drag everyone out, but made it very difficult for us to stay inside and function. For instance, they prevented people from leaving the room they were in to go to the bathroom, and they forced their way into a room that the inside team had staked out as a cop-free room for meetings. The inside team eventually got the police to back down by threatening to go to the bathroom in wastebaskets if they couldn’t use the bathroom, and by having the outside team make a huge amount of noise in the middle of the night to get the cops to leave the meeting room. The noise produced so many angry calls to the police department from students trying to sleep that the cops decided it wasn’t worth staying in the room. For the remainder of the sit-in, however, the outside team was careful not to make noise at night because we didn’t want to alienate students.

On the inside, we also worked to keep the cops from being thugs by videotaping them: at least four people on the inside brought in video cameras and recorded everything. The effect was clear: early on during the sit-in, a police officer picked up a student and threw him against the wall, but when he saw that he’d been videotaped, he apologized profusely to the student, and for the remainder of the sit-in, no police officer laid a hand on any member of the inside team.

Filming on the inside was also a central part of our media strategy. The inside team tossed tapes of footage out the windows to the outside team, where a member with filmmaking experience quickly produced a highlights tape which we copied and gave to TV news crews. Scenes from the highlights tape were shown on national television, and significantly increased both the length and quality of our TV news coverage. The outside team also set up a TV outside the building and showed the highlights tape to supporters.

Another early concern was food: we needed to get it inside. The campus dining hall workers solved this problem for us. On the first night of the sit-in, a group of workers marched to the building with a stack of pizzas and essentially browbeat the police until they were allowed to deliver the food. From that point on, the police let food in, and every day, the outside team arranged for donations from unions, community groups, and restaurants.

On the outside, the goal from the start was to bring as many people as possible to the building, to isolate the administration by eliciting active support from as many constituencies as possible, and to generate positive publicity about the campaign.

A first step was to see that, every day, the noon rally and 8 p.m. vigil were well-run. We made sure the speakers list was diverse, including workers, union reps, faculty, representatives from other student organizations and community groups, politicians, alumni, parents, and big-name speakers. We included musicians, spoken-word artists, and comedians. And we had a good group of drummers who backed up the chants. We spent a lot of time making phone calls and canvassing to increase our turnout every day. Over the course of the sit-in, we chose three of our daily rallies to pump up into huge affairs: one after we’d been inside for a week, another about a week later when we got members of the AFL-CIO executive board to come and speak, and one on the day we left the building. Those rallies attracted about 2,000 people each and were the largest demonstrations Harvard had seen in several decades.

We scheduled other events all day long so that people could always come by the building and find something happening. Events ranged from a teach-in on race and poverty by the Black Students Association to salsa dancing lessons in front of the building. Every weekend, clergy representing different faiths conducted religious services in front of the building, and student bands played. A Boston-area protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas was relocated to Harvard Yard. To keep things organized, we kept a giant scheduling pad on an easel in front of the building where everyone would write down events they booked. Every morning, we would plaster the campus with posters announcing that day’s schedule, and we included the schedule in our daily e-mail updates and on our website.

After the first few days, when it was clear that our support was growing, the police stopped fighting over space inside the building. At that point, members of the inside team split into work groups, and for the remainder of the sit-in, they spent all day making phone calls to turn people out to events, solicit endorsements from national figures, and speak to reporters.

Workers and unions took part in all the events outside the building, and also organized their own. Janitors held their own rally, and off-campus unions sponsored a solidarity night. For many people, the highlights of the sit-in were two explosive night-time demonstrations with the campus dining hall workers. The sit-in coincided with the dining hall workers’ contract negotiations, and the two developments fed each other.

On two nights during the sit-in, the dining hall workers held contract meetings and ended them by marching en masse to the occupied building, where they joined students on the outside and blocked the streets around Harvard Square for hours. The workers brought terrific noisemakers made of laundry detergent bottles with ball bearings inside, making for the loudest, most raucous demonstrations of the sit-in. Hundreds of people danced and chanted in the streets, shutting down the entire area around Harvard Yard.

Not only did the contract meetings help the sit-in, but the sit-in helped generate publicity for the contract campaign. For instance, the meeting that preceded the first night-time demonstration was a strike authorization vote--a completely ordinary part of any contract negotiation. But the context of the sit-in turned the vote into a major local news story: Harvard administrators might soon have a strike on their hands in addition to a building occupation! At the same time that they voted to authorize a strike, the dining hall workers also voted to make all sitters-in honorary members of the union, and they publicized the decision.

INVOLVING THE COMMUNITY

The outside team found unique ways to involve every possible constituency. We attended meetings of student groups to answer questions about the sit-in, and those meetings generated new endorsements. We then got supportive student organizations to co-sponsor our noon rallies. In addition, we found graduate students at each of Harvard’s graduate schools to mobilize their classmates, and had rallies sponsored by the Law School, the Divinity School (they brought a banner: “God Supports a Living Wage”), and so on.

A few days into the sit-in, our most supportive faculty members organized the Faculty Committee for a Living Wage. They wrote an open letter in support of the campaign, collected over 400 signatures in a few days, and published it in the Boston Globe. Some professors held their classes outside the building. And we set up special “instructional” actions to involve faculty. Backed by a group of students, a faculty member would approach the building and tell the police that they thought it was a real shame that the students inside were having to miss their classes, and that they would like to go in and teach them a class. The police, of course, would refuse to let the professor in, at which point the professor would express outrage that he or she was being prevented from teaching students, and dramatically deliver a lecture through the windows.

Alumni participated in two ways. First, we got alumni all over the country to pledge that they would not give money to the university until it implemented a living wage policy. In addition, we got in touch with a group of alumni in New York City who organized high-publicity actions there. They staged a one-day solidarity sit-in at the Harvard Club of New York, and a few days later they held a demonstration inside the New York headquarters of McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm whose board includes Harvard’s treasurer, D. Ronald Daniel. They distributed leaflets announcing that “D. Ronald Daniel is a reprehensible citizen,” did a banner drop, and chanted until security threw them out.

On campus, we worked to constantly escalate the pressure on the administration: we didn’t want them to think they’d seen everything we could do. For instance, we arranged for the Ruckus Society to run a mass civil disobedience training on campus during the sit-in, and had people role-play getting arrested on the steps of other administrative buildings. The implication was clear: we were ready to spread the sit-in if necessary, and many new people were willing to risk arrest.

OCCUPYING THE CAMPUS

Our most important escalation was the sprawling tent city that we built outside the occupied building. The university actually has rules banning anyone from camping out in Harvard Yard, so campus police could have arrested the entire outside team for doing this. To prevent arrests, we assembled a large crowd to launch the tent city. Over the next few days, the city grew to 100 tents and physically transformed Harvard Yard. We strung huge banners from trees above the tents and used sidewalk chalk to name the Yard’s walkways: “Ave. de Justicia,” “Public Alley $10.25,” and so on. We established some rules for tent city: no violence, no fires, and no drugs. Tent city was open to anyone who would abide by the rules, and attracted not only students but community supporters, union reps’ kids, a few tough faculty, and a number of homeless people. We numbered the tents and one campaign member served as the city’s mayor: every night, everyone had to check in with him to get assigned to a tent.

The most important part of tent city was that it changed the feel of the campus: it killed huge patches of the university’s perfectly manicured grass and made the place look like it belonged to the community. At the same time that the tent city was growing, the inside team was producing beautiful signs and sticking them all over the outside of Mass Hall. We also made signs for students to hang in their windows, and invited supporters to make their own. Quickly, the campus became covered with homemade art, and Harvard Yard became an amazing, unrecognizable eyesore.

During the sit-in, it was crucial that we maintained our own channels for disseminating information. When the administration put out a statement full of lies about its labor policies, we distributed a document taking each one apart. And because the campus newspaper ran a front-page “news” article attacking us every day, we had to tell people clearly every day that the sit-in was widely supported and achieving concrete gains. In our daily email and web updates, we listed all the new endorsements and support activities that the previous day had generated, and we publicized every incremental victory achieved during the sit-in. On our website, we posted all the supportive emails we received and all the berating emails that our supporters sent to the administration. At rallies, we told everyone about solidarity actions happening around the country and countered the major lies that the administration and campus newspaper were putting out.

From the start, the administration did not want to discuss the issue of the living wage, because they knew that they could not win. Instead, they tried to divert attention from the issue and focus on the tactic of the sit-in and the supposedly intolerable levels of noise we were creating. We pointed out at rallies and in literature that these issues were red herrings, and persistently kept the focus on the issue of poverty wages at the world’s richest university.

We put tremendous effort into media work, and this more than anything was what won the sit-in for us. Many off-campus supporters assumed that we got a lot of media coverage because Harvard was an irresistible draw. In fact, we got almost no media coverage for the first week of the sit-in, most likely because Harvard was using its connections to black out the story. We broke the blackout by being creative and unremitting. We had supporters call and write to papers and networks to ask why they weren’t covering us.

We also understood that once the sit-in started, reporters would not consider it newsworthy in itself: we had to constantly create new angles for reporters. New endorsements from national figures could create stories that our support was growing. When janitors held a rally, we placed stories about workers getting involved. We turned the dining hall workers’ strike authorization vote into a story about a swelling labor crisis on campus. When the sit-in had lasted a certain number of days, it became newsworthy all over again as the longest sit-in in Harvard history. The New York alumni sit-in generated stories that the occupation was spreading. We scheduled actions that could be covered live on local TV news and we called reporters all day long to follow up on our press releases. In addition to our press team on the outside, several members of the inside team did nothing but call media outlets and plan stories for three weeks.

By the end of the sit-in, about eight very creative and persistent campaign members working with no budget had secured coverage in every major newspaper in the country and every major TV news show. Anyone can do this work with training and practice. Many unions spend small fortunes buying print ads and air time for their big contract campaigns, but you can get it all for free if you plan carefully and work like maniacs.

What all of this produced was a situation in which people all over the country simply expected that Harvard had to change its labor policies, and most people on campus were both inflamed about the administration’s intransigence and invigorated by a sense of their own power. Everyone knew that Harvard had to give in, and it was only a matter of how they did it.

AN EXIT STRATEGY

To end the sit-in, we had to be willing to take an agreement that allowed Harvard to save some face. We would have loved to have it otherwise, but it was very clear by the third week that there was literally no way we were getting out of the building with our demand met immediately. Although the administration refused to speak directly with us, the AFL-CIO’s lawyers agreed to serve as our intermediaries, and we negotiated for about a week using long conference calls. We kept all the pressure building on the outside throughout the negotiations, and in fact did not reveal publicly that negotiations were taking place at all. We arrived at an agreement that we strongly believed would produce a living wage policy on campus within a year if we kept organizing.

Specifically, we got (1) a committee to recommend new policies around wages, benefits, and outsourcing; the committee included workers to be chosen by their unions, students to be elected by the student government, plus some moderately supportive faculty; (2) a moratorium on outsourcing until the committee released its recommendations; (3) an agreement to re-open the janitors’ contract to renegotiate their wages; raises would be retroactive to the sit-in. This was not a living wage policy, but the administration was in a sufficiently vulnerable position to know that if the process did not produce one within a year, we could get the campus to explode in retaliation.

We decided we would take it. We announced on day 21 that we were coming out that afternoon. The outside team decorated the Yard with balloons and bought roses for the inside team. We called out the press, hung posters announcing an exit rally, and watched a huge crowd people gather around the building. The inside team didn’t leave until we and the administration had both posted the agreement to our websites. At that point, the inside team walked out to an incredible welcome, we announced what we had won, and we told everyone that the campaign wasn’t over: we were coming out to continue our work.


Amy Offner was a member of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign. She has also worked as an SEIU organizer and as a co-editor at Dollars & Sense magazine in Boston. This piece first appeared as part of the Troublemaker's Handbook 2, the essential how-to guide for activists looking to fight back and win. Buy it here.