Panel discusses Tufts union issues, including janitor contract negotiations

Arismer Angeles, left and Ander Pierce, right, both strikers, join in the chant during the Community Rally on Day 6 of the Tufts Labor Coalition hunger strike outside Ballou Hall on May. 8. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

A panel of union organizers addressed students and community members Tuesday night about union organization at Tufts. The talk covered the university’s decision to renegotiate custodial staff contracts that garnered widespread attention last spring.

The panel was hosted by Rubén Stern, director of the Latino Center, and included members of unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Boston’s Local 26 chapter of UNITE HERE, as well as people involved in organizing part-time faculty at Tufts.

Members of the panel, including Jason Feria, a member of the SEIU involved in higher education contracts, spoke about the upcoming contract negotiations for Tufts’ custodial staff, which will take place when contracts expire at the end of this academic year.

“We have a contract fight this year,” he said. “The contract is expiring at the end of July in 2016.”

Feria explained that SEIU is already starting to prepare for their July contract negotiations.

“We’re trying to organize to be ready for that contract fight so that we can have it right when it comes time,” he said.

Feria also said that the negotiations will be difficult because many people are not aware of their rights.

“While there are very strong fighters among this group…there are a lot of folks who have never seen this before, are scared and don’t know what to do in this situation,” he said. “This is a problem across the board because people don’t understand what their rights are.”

The contract negotiations for the university’s custodial staff follow a long restructuring process that took place in August. The restructuring was originally set to lay off 35 workers, though the number of layoffs was later reduced to four through job transfers to other working sites, according to a previous Daily article. These layoff reductions came after rallies, protests and a hunger strike by Tufts Labor Coalition last spring, which have continued into the fall. It is not known how many workers left their jobs at the university for other reasons since the restructuring.

Stern said before the panel that, since the janitors are contracted by custodial provider DTZ, it is easier for them to organize and be represented by SEIU.

“It is harder to unionize if directly employed by Tufts,” he said.

Stern added that it is harder for the university to change the organized status of workers if Tufts hires a company with an existing union.

While workers may still benefit under non-unionized employment and can still receive adequate benefits and salaries, they lack the right to collectively bargain, Stern said. This right is important to provide job protection and security.

At the event, another panelist, Spanish lecturer Andrew Klatt, described his experience working to help unionize the non-tenured, part-time lecturers at Tufts.

“[Because of the tenure system], 70 percent of [non-tenured] university faculty nationwide don’t have job security,” Klatt said.

Klatt explained at the panel that union organizing for these part-time faculty members is essential.

“Faculty’s working conditions are the students’ teaching conditions,” he said.

Although Klatt was successful in unionizing part-time Tufts lecturers, many attempts to organize other Tufts employees have failed, since the process is complex and includes multiple signature drives and votes, he said.

Other faculty groups that wanted to unionize, such as the university’s food service workers, were unsuccessful because of pushback from the administration, according to Kelly McGuire, a representative from the Boston’s Local 26 union.

A food service worker at Hodgdon On the Run who spoke under condition of anonymity said that being in a union would be useful, since she often works long days with few provisions if one of her coworkers becomes sick, leaving her to fill the void.

“I’ve been here 26 years, it’s not like [my job is] secure, it’s just the way it is,” she said.

Stern said he hoped that the panel succeeded in bringing greater awareness about the unionizing process to the Tufts community and shed new light on unions themselves. He added that national policy is dominated by union-driven issues, but that unions themselves are not talked about as much.

“In instances such as the Democratic [presidential] debate, the word union wasn’t used once,” he said.

Member of the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) Nicole Joseph said the student group plans to support the custodial staff in their contract negotiations. 

“We will support the janitors in their fight for a better contact,” Joseph, a sophomore, told the Daily in an email.

Tufts alumnus Lorrayne Shen (A’ 12), who attended the panel, said she was impressed by the panel and had not seen anything like it before.