JJA claims success in fight for janitors


A student organization founded last year to promote support for Tufts’ janitors, the Jumbo Janitor Alliance (JJA), says it had a significant impact in determining the outcome of this summer’s contract negotiations between Tufts’ janitors and their employer, American Building Maintenance (ABM) Industries.

While the JJA did not successfully convince the administration to get involved in the negotiations, the organization says it is satisfied that highlights of the new contract include higher wages and more benefits for all janitors at Tufts.

The JJA held rallies and protests on campus last school year and continued its advocacy over the summer. The group’s former co-chair, senior Kevin Dillon, claimed that Tufts purposely scheduled negotiations during the summer to avoid pressure from the students.

But students and janitors, organized by the labor union SEIU Local 615, held a rally in Davis Square on June 10 that drew press coverage from the Somerville Journal. The protesters went so far as to block traffic, delaying motorists and leading some drivers to use profanity.

“Sometimes people just don’t get it; we’ve impeded their right to drive for a minute,” JJA Secretary and Treasurer Max Goldman, a junior, told the Daily. “I think it was a really good idea because it got our point across.”

Even though they were blocking cars, the students were “making way for the spirit of justice and for fair treatment in the area,” Goldman said.

The JJA gained the support of local politicians this summer, including state Rep. Carl Sciortino (LA ’00) and state Sen. Pat Jehlen.

The alliance also enlisted the aid of Somerville Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz, who got involved after looking at how the wages Tufts janitors earn relative to the endowment of the university compare with those of neighboring schools. Before the new contract was ratified on Aug. 11, all Tufts janitors earned $13.85 an hour. Tufts’ endowment is approximately $1.5 billion.

Boston University, a school with an endowment of $1.1 billion, pays its part-time janitors $14.66 an hour and its full-time janitors $19.54 an hour. According to Dillon and Gewirtz, Tufts’ relatively low wages obligated many janitors to work two or three jobs in order to make a living.

“I think we should do better than that,” Gewirtz said. “My feeling is that when an institution is doing well, the lowest-paid workers should be doing well too.”

With the agreement between the janitors’ union, SEIU Local 615, and ABM, the janitors secured an 80-cent-per-hour wage increase every year for the next four years, six more personal days and a health- care plan for full-time workers and their families at a rate of $100 per month.

Gewirtz helped the alliance tweak a resolution supporting the janitors and then submitted it at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen. Gewirtz said another alderman objected to it on grounds of irrelevance, so the resolution was tabled.

“I disagree with that objection,” Gerwitz said. “I think wage issues and issues of social justice do have an impact in our community.”

After the tabling, a number of aldermen signed a letter to University President Lawrence Bacow expressing their support for the janitors, Gewirtz said.

The workers, who had only three personal days last year, now have nine.

“Not only is this a 200 percent increase in days they can take off, but the doctor’s-note requirement to take time off has been lifted,” Dillon wrote in his blog dedicated to supporting the janitors. “Now workers can take these days off for any personal reason they deem necessary.”

“Obviously with the actual ratification vote, you can see that our members were very much happy with the results of the negotiations,” SEIU Local 615 representative Roxanna Rivera said. “[The new contract] was ratified overwhelmingly by the membership.”

Dillon and Goldman both agree that the new contract is a success for the janitors and the JJA. “We won a lot of the major things that the workers wanted to see taken care of,” Goldman said.

“I’m happy with the contract,” Dillon said. “I think it will help out the janitors at Tufts a lot.”

Vice President of Operational Affairs John Roberto expressed contentment with the contract as well. The new contract addressed a number of issues that needed to be worked out, Roberto said.

“Certainly, I’m pleased that OneSource [ABM] and SEIU Local 615 were able to reach a contract,” he said.

“There’s no way that these contracts would have been reached without the alliance’s efforts,” Dillon said. He added that although the university never played an active role in the negotiations, the “enormous amount of pressure” Tufts received was what ensured the successful outcome.

“I think it shows that the university, if pushed and pressured, they’ll make the decisions they need to make,” Dillon said. “You have to be willing to push strong enough in order to get them to change.”

Roberto stands by his past statement that a “mutually satisfactory agreement” would have been reached regardless, but commends the group for making the community at Tufts more conscious of its janitors.

“There is no doubt that student involvement increased awareness on campus,” Roberto said, adding that the efforts of the JJA amounted to “a good thing.”

According to Dillon, if there is a flaw in the new contract, it is in the magnitude of the wage increase.

If inflation continues to rise significantly, Dillon said, the new wage increases may not be able to keep up. “It’s the duty of the university” in its obligation to social justice to make sure the janitors consistently earn living wages, Dillon said.

Roberto pointed out that on a percentage basis, the increases are “slightly higher than those in the Greater Boston area,” and above inflation.

“Some people are thinking that now that contract negotiations are over our group will cease to exist,” JJA Co-Chair Jeffrey Kimm told the Daily.

Kimm says the mission statement of the group will remain to “build a community on campus between janitors as well as students.”

This year the group will have more experience and a broader network of advocate groups in the area under its belt, according to Kimm. Goldman agrees that the new contracts are only the first of many negotiations between janitors and the Tufts community.