Chants demanding better treatment of Tufts’ custodial staff filled the air around Ballou Hall Wednesday afternoon as over 100 students, faculty members, and union leaders gathered for a Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) rally.
Students working with representatives of Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 254 want Tufts to answer demands for increased wages, job security, more full-time employment opportunities, and better benefits for the over 170 janitors who work for OneSource, the private custodial service that handles Tufts’ cleaning services.
OneSource hires its workers and controls their wages and benefits, but SLAM wants the University to force OneSource to address labor concerns.
The University is exploring the issue, but SLAM co-founder Iris Halpern said she is unconvinced and that it is “totally boggling” as to why Tufts would accept the current employment practices.
Administrators say they see the situation as a “Catch-22.” President emeritus John DiBiaggio said that outsourcing saves the University nearly a million dollars a year. The former president said he is unsure where the University would find funds to increase the wages earned or hours worked of the custodial staff.
“The only way you will get more money is by increasing the costs for the students,” DiBiaggio said.
SLAM, formed over the summer by concerned Tufts students, organized the rally to increase awareness about the University’s use of OneSource. Chanting “Si se puede” (“Yes you can”) and carrying posters and banners that read “Don’t Be Mean to Those Who Clean,” about 40 students walked from Tilton Hall to Ballou Hall.
The rally featured speakers including members of SLAM, Professor Gary Goldstein, and several custodians. “Do you want to be a part of a University that doesn’t take its own community seriously?” Halpern asked the crowd.
Increasing custodian wages, which protestors say do not cover the cost-of-living in Boston, is a SLAM priority, but Halpern said there are larger issue at stake. “There’s no point in having increased wages if you don’t have job security,” Halpern said before the rally. “This school can’t function without custodians.”
The rally’s activities were briefly disturbed when three University police officers distributed fliers to the crowd stating that students or faculty of Tufts University that create a disturbance could be charged with criminal offenses.
Halpern says she has been negotiating with President Larry Bacow and Vice President of Operations John Roberto, but that she has not “seen any concrete steps that show they’re taking the issues seriously.”
“We will keep at them, but it’s their turn to commit,” she said.
At the rally, SLAM and the SEIU presented a petition containing their demands, which they asked all in attendance to sign.
SLAM hopes that by involving students in its efforts, it will increase pressure on the administration. According to DiBiaggio, “President Bacow is looking very seriously at the issue,” DiBiaggio said, and will “weigh the needs of the workers vis-? -vis the needs of the University.”
SLAM members encouraged all students to join the debate. “When [students] pretend to be neutral, tell them that they are supporting OneSource and the administration,” SLAM member Rebecca Batchelder told the crowd.
The group plans to gather again at Tisch library today at 2:30 p.m. before marching to the president’s office to deliver the petition. Another SLAM rally is planned for Tisch Library next Wednesday.
Halpern said she hopes the next gathering will have a bigger turnout. Although over hundred students participated on Wednesday, SLAM members say there should be more interest in the student body.
Rather than hire its own workers, Tufts began outsourcing its custodial service in 1994, saying it hoped to improve service quality and lower costs. Tufts hired OneSource in 1997.
The OneSource employees, Halpern says, “work hard for the community and deserve respect from the community. It’s irrational and unjust to continue abusing them the way they are now.”