Custodial contracts up for negotiation

With only seven months left before Tufts’ custodial contract expires, labor activists began meeting this week to discuss maintaining and increasing benefits for workers.

The ultimate goal of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) is to have the University agree to a minimum standard of wages and benefits workers will be paid. Though Tufts does not directly control such issues, it could demand any company meet certain minimums before signing a contract.

SLAM members say they are concerned that if Tufts decides switch from its current provider, OneSource, the labor advances the group made in 2001 when the contract was last up for renewal will be lost.

“Other firms will try to underbid OneSource,” SLAM leader Ariana Flores said. “These firms will cut wages and benefits. The improvements that will have just gone into effect will be invalidated.”

But Tufts generally only negotiates over the fees a custodial service will charge the University to maintain its campuses. Issues such as benefits, wages, and job security are usually left to be negotiated between individual companies and the unions that represent custodians.

The contract between workers and OneSource will also expire at the end of June, 2004.

“All of the terms and conditions are up for discussion between the vendor and the union,” Vice President of Operations John Roberto said.

Roberto declined to comment on whether Tufts would renew the contract with OneSource or pursue other options.

SLAM is arguing that all workers, including part-timers, should receive benefits such as health insurance.

Currently, only full-time workers receive family health insurance – health insurance that will cover a worker’s family as well as themselves.

Of the approximately 200 OneSource employees who work at Tufts’ three campuses, approximately half are considered part-time by OneSource. Part time workers are employed fewer than 29 hours per week.

“We need health insurance for part-time employees, greater salaries, and more full time positions,” first working shift steward Irlanda Castilla said. “We also need sick and personal days, and we also need to create job security.”

SLAM held a teach-in on Monday night to educate students about janitors’ issues. Negotiations will not begin until the spring, so the group at this point is working to build awareness. About 35 people attended the teach-in, including undergraduate and graduate students, custodial staff, and faculty.

Until 1994, custodians were direct employees of the University, when Tufts began to out-source all custodial work. The University entered a four-year contract with OneSource in 1997.

SLAM was founded in the fall of 2001 while Tufts was renegotiating its contract with OneSource. The group also worked with the union to establish a new contract between OneSource and union. The group’s mission was to “fight for the worker’s right to fair salaries and benefits.”

“By and large, our efforts in 2001 did work,” SLAM member and political science professor Gary McKissick said. The main goal of SLAM during the previous set of talks was to increase janitors’ wages, and ultimately wages were raised from $8 to $11.45 an hour. The wages were increased over the three years of the contract – in January, wages for full-time workers will reach $11.45. Currently, they are at $10.80.

Janitors at other universities in the Boston area are paid a higher amount than Tufts’ staff. OneSource workers at Harvard are paid $12.35 an hour. M.I.T. and Boston University do not out-source their work, and janitors are paid $12.46 and $15.95 an hour, respectively.

In the spring of last year, Harvard students protested and practiced civil disobedience to encourage the university to increase OneSource’s wages there.

“Some universities do pay more,” Roberto said. Adding that “the cleaners at Tufts do have a better contract than what is considered to be the common market price.”

The Economic Policy Institute and Wider Opportunities for Women suggest a living wage standard of at least $12 per hour plus benefits for the Boston area.

In 2001, relations between SLAM and the University were tenuous at best. SLAM held a protest in front of Ballou Hall, and often complained that Tufts did not meet with the group. Ultimately, however, an agreement was reached between OneSource and Tufts.

Flores is confident this year the discussions will be much more civil. “The situation is different this time because we won last time and we have a lot more credibility,” she said. “I like to think that there won’t be so much so much of a difference of opinion.”

“At some level, Tufts is just another employer, but is that what we what Tufts to be? Is that how we expect an elite university to treat its people?” McKissick said.