Student group to protest treatment of janitors

The Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), a student group formed over the summer, plans to protest the University’s treatment of janitorial staff at today’s matriculation ceremony on the academic quad.

While promising not to disrupt matriculation activities, the group hopes to promote the message that Tufts’ 1994 decision to outsource custodians allows administrators to ignore their complaints.

Group leaders say that the University permits OneSource, the company which provides Tufts’ cleaning services, to practice unfair employment polices in its treatment of over 170 janitors. They assert that current wages do not meet Boston’s cost of living and that full-time jobs, which provide better health benefits, are scarce.

President-elect Larry Bacow said he plans to work with the group to reach an acceptable resolution.

Senior Iris Halpern, one of the organizers of today’s event, met with Bacow on Aug. 17 to discuss future action. Though both say the discussion was frank and honest, Halpern says the meeting did not meet her expectations.

“I don’t think it was promising,” Halpern said. “I didn’t walk out feeling like they were going to start seriously changing things.”

Bacow, however, said the hour-long meeting went well. “I think it was a good conversation,” he said. “It’s terrific that our students are engaged, that they are interested in making the world a better place.”

During the meeting, the two discussed the history of labor relations at Tufts, the financial constraints under which the University operates, and how to be fair to those on both sides of the debate. Halpern said that Bacow, who studied economics, too often focused on the economics of the situation, ignoring the social effects of Tufts’ decisions.

“I think he’s a politician,” she said. “We’re a university, not a corporation.”

Though Halpern said she was unconvinced that Bacow would in fact look further into the issue, the president-elect said he would work with SLAM to address its concerns. “I have a lot to learn,” he said. The initial meeting, he said, “won’t be the last.”

According to Halpern, the outsourcing has enabled Tufts to ignore custodians’ complaints over what she called inadequate wages. She said that salaries, which range from $8 to $10.50 an hour, are competitive with the national average, but pointed to Boston’s high cost of living as a reason to increase wages.

SLAM is working with the AFL-CIO’s Service Employee International Union (SEIU) local chapters to organize various protests and activities around campus. In addition to the Sept. 4 “learn-in,” a rally and march are scheduled for Sept. 12. SEIU employees from Local 285 and 254, OneSource employees, and Tufts students and faculty members are expected to participate.

Rocio Saenz, a SEIU 254 deputy trustee, said that the union is negotiating with OneSource. Its chief complaints are the low wages OneSource pays and the scarce availability of full-time jobs. “Many of our workers must work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Saenz said.

Universities often outsource non-academic services, such as dining and janitorial, to cut costs. OneSource privately negotiates the wages of its workers.

At today’s event, group members will distribute information packets promoting an upcoming “learn-in,” and post banners throughout the day.

“This is an opportunity to tell the school that we’re dead serious, because we haven’t gotten very much positive feedback,” Halpern said. “We’re serious but we don’t want to be disruptive.”

Director of Public Safety John King said he was aware of the Sept. 4 learn-in, but had no knowledge of any other scheduled SLAM events. King said he expects no violence at today’s demonstration.