OneSource, SEIU Union reach contract for Tufts janitors

After months of tense negotiations, OneSource, Tufts’ custodial outsourcing firm, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) No. 615, the union representing Tufts janitors, agreed on a new contract determining wages and benefits for University custodians over the summer.

While the contract represents significant gains for workers, SEIU and the pro-custodian student group Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) had hoped for better terms.

Union representative Dan Nicolai expressed satisfaction with the terms. “Of course we wanted more, but it’s a negotiation,” Nicolai said. “It’s a good agreement.”

Tufts janitors previously received $11.45 per hour, but the new contract calls for an increase in wages to $11.95 the first year, $12.45 the second year, $13.10 the third year, and about $13.80 in the fourth year, based on later negotiations.

The $11.45 wage is on the low end of janitorial wages at Boston-area universities, but it is on par with non-university wages throughout the metro area.

OneSource workers made concrete gains are in improved medical benefits. Janitors will receive one sick day for the first year, two in the second and third year, and three in the fourth year. Previously, janitors received no sick days.

The new contract also includes an increase in the family health care allocation, funds that service workers can put towards the union’s family healthcare plan in addition to their individual health coverage.

The new contract further stipulates that the University will employ 65 percent of its OneSource employees full-time by the end of the fourth year, a measure geared toward creating a more stable and permanent workforce.

But Ariana Flores (LA ’04), who attended the negotiations, said that the wage raise does not change the fact that Tufts’ position contrasts unfavorably with other area universities. “Other schools will be renewing their contracts incrementally — Tufts’ [wages] will still be lower than other schools — [and] there will still be a difference between [Tufts and] BC, BU, MIT,” she said.

Many of the perceived flaws in the contract are not unique to Tufts, however; they are part of a larger trend of low custodial wages that coincide with a high cost of living.

All aspects of the contract put Tufts’ terms above the level of the so-called Master Contract, which determines wages and benefits for many janitors in Boston malls and office buildings. Tufts’ wages and allocations for health care are more generous than those of the Master Contract, which does not include sick days or a target for full-time employment.

Tufts administrators were satisfied with the terms of the new contract, according to Vice President of Operations John Roberto. “OneSource has been a very reliable organization with which to work,” he said. “The negotiations and contract formulating took about five months of hard but not adversarial work.”

“I’m not sure if I’m happy with the agreement,” said Irlanda Castillo, a steward of daytime custodians who contributed to the negotiations. “There is a lot that I disagree with, but it’s better than what we had before.”

But many OneSource workers said they had no firm idea of the terms of the new contract. “It’s all the same to me,” said OneSource worker Teresa Luciano. Even those who had complaints about the terms were grateful for their jobs.

Others were pleased with the changes, and happy to secure improvements in any form.

But according to Flores, the union had to substantially lower the numbers for the terms that it originally brought to the table. “Overwhelmingly it was the union having to make the compromise,” she said.

SEIU had hoped for health benefits for part-time workers, for example, but this proposal was denied. According to the University, none of its other part-time workers receive heath benefits.

But Flores said that it is not clear which part-time workers are employed directly by the University. Tufts’ terms of employment for service workers depend upon two contracts: the site contract, between OneSource and SEIU, and another between OneSource and Tufts. SLAM argued that Tufts implicitly approves the site contract and therefore has leverage vis-? -vis its content.

Flores also cited OneSource contracts in downtown office buildings that do include part-time health insurance.

“The new contract boasts minimal gains for our janitors — the type of improvements that do little to do repeal the deep-rooted inequities of a racist and xenophobic class system,” said senior Elizabeth Munsell. Munsell took part in the SLAM effort to pressure the University to improve working conditions. She was disappointed that Tufts ignored the community’s activism on labor issues, she said.

SLAM met with Roberto last year to propose substantial wage and benefit increases, with little success. “When it came to actually considering changing the level of support he was willing to give the janitors, he practically laughed in our faces,” Munsell said.

Roberto said that the University was “very aware of it and mindful” of student activism, but said that the amount allocated for custodial services was reasonable and that the agreement was satisfactory to both parties and within the budget.

SLAM plans to continue its action on labor issues this year. “We’ll certainly be expanding awareness on labor issues, both at Tufts and in the greater Boston area,” co-coordinator Mickey Leibner said. “We’re also going to be coordinating with other Boston-area schools to try to bring solidarity to labor issues across the region.”

Last year’s SLAM tactics were high-profile, such as holding a demonstration during April Open House for admitted students.

Activism on behalf of Tufts custodial workers dates back to 1994, when students, faculty and staff protested Tufts’ outsourcing of its janitorial staff, which caused wage reductions and the loss of University healthcare and reduced tuition for the children of employees.