About 40 students gathered on the Lower Patio of the Mayer Campus Center yesterday afternoon to rally, calling on Tufts to stop using non-unionized building trade workers on the Medford/Somerville campus. During the rally, which was organized by the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), supporters marched through the Mayer Campus Center, past Tisch Library and the Cannon, up to Ballou Hall.
As they marched, protestors chanted phrases such as “Tufts, come off it, put people over profit,” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting. What’s outrageous? Sweatshop wages.” After circling Ballou several times, the crowd stopped in front of the building entrance facing the academic quad to read their demands aloud and deliver a letter to University President Anthony Monaco, Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Vice President for Operations Linda Snyder.
TLC announced four demands, calling on Tufts to adhere to values of active citizenship and social justice, respond to the needs of building trades workers on campus, and hire only contractors that provide decent wages, retirement funds, stringent safety regulations, a system to address workers’ grievances within the project and respect and a voice for all workers. Finally they demanded that Tufts sign a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which would ensure that Tufts hire only union labor for major construction projects.
Two TLC members, junior Chelsea Hayashi and sophomore Deanna Baris, attempted to deliver a letter detailing these demands to Monaco inside Ballou Hall. However, an officer stationed outside the doors to Ballou refused to let the students in. Students began to chant “let us in” until the officer went inside and returned with an administrative official who took the letters, thanked the students for their work and promised to deliver the letter to Monaco.
Sophomore Priyanka Padidam read the letter written by TLC to the crowd.
“We hold Tufts accountable to its commitment to the broader community,” Padidam stated. “If Tufts seeks to build leaders and movements of the next generation, it must start by guaranteeing justice for the workers who build Tufts ... We plan to escalate our action until the Tufts administration agrees to meet them.”
Tufts is one of few schools in Greater Boston that has refused to sign such an agreement, according to TLC’s letter to the administration. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Northeastern University and Boston University have all signed agreements to hire only union labor, TLC members said.
In the past, the administration has refused to sign a PLA despite several meetings with the the Boston Building Trades Council (BTC), an umbrella organization that works with and represents unionized construction in the Boston area. Boston BTC also organized protests throughout last semester and summer, in the form of flyers and mobile billboard trucks, according to Chelsea Feuchs, the hospital and higher education campaign coordinator for the Boston BTC and TLC. A PLA would ensure the safety of and respect for construction workers on campus, first-year Edwin Jain, who led the rally and helped read the demands, said.
TLC circulated an online petition beginning on Feb. 21 entitled “We Demand Justice for Tufts Trade Workers” in order to pressure the university to sign a PLA. At press time, the petition has amassed a total of 230 signatures. According to TLC member Zoe Jeka, there is also a print version of the petition that has amassed around 300 signatures on it.
The protests come as several large scale construction projects continue on the Medford/Somerville campus, including the Central Energy Plant (CEP) on Boston Avenue, the Science & Engineering Complex (SEC) and the renovation of an old industrial warehouse at 574 Boston Ave. to provide teaching, lab and office space for several academic departments. The university also just finished its six-month renovation process for the Memorial Stairs on College Avenue early this semester. Members of TLC, custodial workers and construction workers also organized protests that addressed fair labor practices on Tufts campuses last Halloween at a protest outside of the Gifford House.
Out of the construction projects, the only one using union-only labor is the CEP, according to the TLC letter.
“In the past few years, construction and renovation at Tufts has skyrocketed, and more building plans are slated for upcoming semesters,” the letter read. “Each time the administration initiates a project, it has the opportunity to choose between a contractor that guarantees a completely unionized workforce or one that does not. In the construction industry, non-unionized workers are vulnerable to wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and lack of proper job training. But for all but one major construction projects on the Medford campus, Tufts has chosen the non-union contractor. Tufts has failed to uphold its pledge to social justice in its own community.”
According to Snyder, Tufts only employs contractors with an above-average Experience Modification Rating — the insurance ranking system that reviews the safety practices of companies — and the non-union companies Tufts hires all have great safety standards based on the rating.
“It would be foolish and wasteful for Tufts to only hire union workers on this campus because our standards are high, and we can meet those standards with non-union companies as well as union companies because we’re very selective,” Snyder told the Daily in a Oct. 26, 2015 article. “[We] do not just hire someone off the street.”
She added that out of the approximately 85 construction projects that were ongoing on Tufts campuses last fall, the “vast bulk of them use union workers.” In addition, Snyder expressed disagreement with Boston BTC’s demands for full-union employment because Tufts construction projects also factor in financial aspects for their contracting choices.
“It’s just wrong to let someone else set rules that increase the cost of education,” she said last October.
According to the rally’s Facebook event, a union provides workers with better wages and working conditions and the ability to protest or contest abuse from contractors and project managers. In contrast, non-union contractors can put workers in severe danger and otherwise take advantage of their labor.
TLC cited “The Socio-Economic Impacts of Construction Unionization in Massachusetts” report released by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in March 2010, which states that non-union contractors may exploit loopholes in contracts to avoid giving workers benefits and save money. The report also showed that non-union contractors are significantly more dangerous than union contractors, as they committed about 88 percent of safety standard violations between 2004 and 2009.
“We can’t allow these violations of workers’ rights to go uninterrupted,” Hayashi said. “If Tufts claims to be a progressive institution, then it should commit to hiring union-only labor, just as every other comparable school in the Boston area has done.”