Tufts Labor Coalition protests non-union hiring at Tufts Talks event

Members of Tufts Labor Coalition and supporters rally on Wednesday Mar. 2 to demand a Project Labor Agreement from Tufts, which would guarantee the hiring of union-only labor for large construction projects. TLC rallies have continued this week. Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily Archive

As Tufts faculty, alumni and parents arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel on Boylston St. for a Tufts Talks event yesterday evening, they were greeted by approximately 40 Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) members protesting Tufts’ use of non-union contractors. TLC and the Boston Building Trades Council (BTC) have each worked to ask the Tufts administration to sign a formal Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which would guarantee the hiring of union-only building trades workers for large-scale construction projects on Tufts’ campus.

TLC was joined by several members of the Boston BTC, who held banners and handed out flyers to passersby. The Boston BTC has been protesting and attempting to negotiate with Tufts administration since the beginning of the summer, and the group claims that the administration has continuously resisted signing a PLA.

The protestors occupied the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the hotel for about an hour and a half while the Tufts Talks event took place, chanting phrases such as “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Sweatshop wages!” and “Hey hey, ho ho. Unsafe construction’s got to go.”

During the event, following a welcome speech by University President Anthony Monaco, there were various faculty speakers, including Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology Bree Aldridge, Associate Dean for Research at Tisch College Peter Levine and Professor of Psychology Aniruddh Patel. According to the event pageTufts Talks intended to host “an evening of ideas, conversation and connection.”

“We thought that Tufts Talks, an event intended to foster dialogue within the Tufts community, was a prime opportunity to amplify workers’ voices in that dialogue,” TLC member Anna Gaebler said. “Given that President Monaco and distinguished alumni were in attendance, we thought it was a great chance to raise awareness about this issue.”

Outside the Four Seasons, Brian Doherty, the head of Boston BTC, and Chelsea Feuchs, the hospital and higher education campaign coordinator for the Boston BTC, both gave speeches at the rally. Doherty said that this issue is not just restricted to building trades workers. Tufts’ willingness to hire union workers, pay reasonable wages and provide important benefits effects everyone from students to dining hall workers and janitors.

“How can we provide a space where students can learn in a safe environment and at the same time protect the workers who work in construction, in the dining halls, and the dorms?” Doherty said.

Doherty explained that the Boston BTC has made many attempts to negotiate with the Tufts administration, to ask them to sign a PLA and to partner with them in developing a safe working environment at Tufts.

“We have time and again gone to Tufts to say that we can partner with them and time and again they say no,” Doherty said. “We will be here every step of the way, we demand better…Please support the workers who support you everyday.”

The protest came hours after members of TLC met with Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Vice President for Operations Linda Snyder earlier yesterday, according to Gaebler, a senior. At the meeting, TLC requested evidence and documentation to back up administrators’ claims that the non-union contractors Tufts hires maintain safe practices and provide living wages, but Gaebler said the administration refused to comply.

“We went in seeking transparency and accountability from the administration,” Gaebler said. “They have claimed that the non-union contractors they hire provide safe and fair conditions for workers. But when we requested documentation of this assertion, Snyder and Campbell refused.”

According to GaeblerCampbell and Snyder claimed that they play no role in the determination of wages, benefits and working conditions, saying that theses issues are generally left up to those in charge of construction.

“When we asked whether they consider workers’ wages, benefits and workplace practices while choosing a non-union contractor, they said they usually leave that kind of business management to the construction manager,” she said. “Essentially, they are saying that ensuring dignity and fair conditions for workers on this campus is not a priority.”

The Daily reached out to Executive Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler, but was not given a comment about the meeting at press time.

In an Oct. 26, 2015 Daily articleSnyder said that Tufts solely employs contractors with an “above average” Experience Modification Rating — the insurance ranking system used to evaluate company safety standards. Under this type of measurement, all non-union contractors at Tufts require excellent safety standards, she said.

According to Snyder, out of the around 85 construction projects that were happening across Tufts’ three campuses at the time, the “vast bulk of them use union workers.”

Snyder said at the time that the Tufts administration disagreed with the Boston BTC’s demands for full-union employment, and that the university has tried to remain flexible with its hiring practices in order to pick the best approaches for construction on Tufts campus. Tufts makes calculated financial decisions, in conjunction with safety assessments of contractors in their selection of labor employment, she said.

“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 said. “It’s just wrong to let someone else set rules that increase the cost of education.”

However, Gaebler said that there is statistical evidence showing that non-union contractors violate safety standards with far more frequency that union contractors. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) found that between 2004 and 2009, non-union contractors committed 88 percent of industry safety standards violations, according to an analysis conducted of OSHA records by Cornell University.

Last October, Snyder told the Daily that she wanted Tufts to be more explicit and rigorous about checking subcontractor safety standards.

“[We want to be] more explicit about safety standards…[by] specifically asking for rankings for firm safety to make sure that they are better than average,” she said.

One of the non-union contractors Tufts employs is Turner Construction Company, which is working on the construction of the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), which will feature laboratories promoting interdisciplinary research. The SEC project uses about 90 percent of the workers are from union-organized construction trades, according to an Aug. 5, 2015 letter to the Tufts community written by Snyder.

However, Gaebler said Turner Construction Company, which ostensibly passed Tufts’ safety vetting process, has previously had safety violations. According to the company’s websiteTurner is a large contractor which has provided work for projects such as the renovation of Madison Square Garden, the construction of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In 2013, during the renovation of Madison Square Garden, Turner Construction Company was fined $94,600 for 90 total safety violations during the construction process, according to a Dec. 16, 2013 article in New York Daily News.

“The administration kept insisting that they have a solid vetting process for contractors,” Gaebler said. “But Turner Construction, a company contracted on this campus, faced a scandal just a few years ago for egregious safety violations on a major renovation of Madison Square Garden in New York City.”

The New York Daily News reported that Turner Construction Company repeatedly failed to use safety equipment, such as guardrails and toe boards, which protect workers from falling off working surfaces at extreme heights. During the project, Turner committed more violations than any other builder in 2012, according to the article. Many of the violations and fines were enforced by New York City, but OSHA also fined Turner Construction Company for at least one serious violation during the Madison Square Garden renovation project, according to the OSHA inspection report.

The company’s spokeswoman Kelly Magee said to the New York Daily News at the time that Turner Construction Company was participating in New York’s Major Projects program, which intended to increase safety standards on major construction projects by increasing communication between the construction industry and New York’s Department of Buildings (DOB). Magee said that projects involved in the program commit 49 percent fewer violations than projects not participating in the program.

“Neither Snyder nor Campbell were aware of [these safety violations],” Gaebler said. “Either the administration did not investigate Turner’s safety records or they did not care, either way, what kind of vetting process is that?”

In the letter last August, Snyder wrote that Tufts is committed to employing contractors that “can deliver high quality services that adhere to all applicable safety standards, and also meet or budget and schedule needs.”

Turner Construction company has an outstanding safety record and is responsible for enforcing rigorous safety standards, planning and practices across all trades,” she wrote.

Both the Boston BTC and TLC said that they would continue to pressure the administration to sign a PLA and change their hiring practices.

“[During our meeting] we made it clear that until the administration commits to a family-supporting wage, benefits package and top-tier safety enforcement for every building trades worker on this campus, we will not stop escalating,” Gaebler said.