Tufts janitors vote to authorize strike if no agreement is reached

Janitors vote to authorize a strike if necessary when the current contract for Tufts workers expires on Halloween in Tilton Hall on Oct. 31. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts janitors voted to authorize a strike if necessary as negotiations with Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) Services near the contract expiration date of Oct. 31. Voting began on Wednesday and continued through Thursday afternoon’s final voting round in Tilton Hall, in order to include each janitorial shift.

The affirmative vote from the “vast majority” of Tufts janitors will give the bargaining committee of the janitor’s union, 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the power to put a strike on the table as the contract expiration date draws nearer, SEIU Vice President Roxana Rivera said.

“We need to take whatever action is necessary to win a good contract, so it just again re-emphasizes that folks understand what’s at stake … and that certain decisions are going to need to be made and that [workers] are really giving that support [to] the bargaining committee to make those decisions,” she said.

The bargaining committee, comprised of Rivera and several Tufts janitors, will be in negotiations with C&W Services on Friday and Monday, attempting to hammer out a new agreement before the current contract expires.

It’s … authorizing the committee to call for a strike if necessary,” Rivera said. “We have two paths basically. We could be seeing a strike or we could be reaching a tentative agreement, which in that case, the workers [on the committee] would have to go before the membership for them to ratify, so it’s a process. We can’t make any bold moves here without the membership.”

A group of 27 janitors and several union organizers gathered in the Tilton common room yesterday afternoon and were handed folders containing information about the contract negotiations along with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote signs for the final voting session. 

Rivera explained to workers the meaning of the vote, the status of the ongoing negotiation process and what workers’ options would be if no agreement is reached by Oct. 31.

She explained at the voting session that workers have a legal right to strike after the contract expires, and the strike would be “protected,” meaning they could not be replaced if they chose this option. The bargaining committee could also choose to extend the contract, which would mean all current working conditions would stay the same, she said. This would be an appropriate choice if it looked like negotiations were moving forward and only needed a few more days to be finalized, she added. Finally, the committee could decide that janitors work without a contract. In this case, C&W Services could not lower workers’ salaries or benefits, but they could choose to not recognize grievance and arbitration procedures if problems arose, she said.

Rivera instructed janitors to hold up the ‘yes’ signs if they authorized the bargaining committee to announce a strike if necessary. In this session, 27 voted ‘yes’ and zero voted ‘no.’ According to Rivera, the overwhelming majority of all Tufts janitors in previous voting sessions had voted to authorize the strike.

According to Adelaida Colon, a janitor at Tufts and a member of the contract bargaining committee, the negotiations were moving slowly.

“Bit by bit. Things are going bit by bit. They’re offering little,” she said in Spanish, with SEIU Regional Communications Manager for New England Eugenio Villasante translating into English.

According to Colon, workers were asking for more full-time positions, decreased workloads, better benefits, improved healthcare and increased respect. She said she was optimistic about negotiations despite the slow process.

“What we are expecting is a positive answer from the company based on the fact that we’ve been working here for many many years,” Colon said. “We’ve been loyal to the company, to the students, to the university.”

Rivera said that the union had made some progress in negotiations, but some of its major demands had yet to be addressed.

“We’re still fighting for a just wage increase,” she said. “We’re still fighting for a guarantee of overtime work, because still we’re trying to deal with the fact that, you know, 40 percent of the workers still work part-time and there’s no operational reason why that needs to be.”

After the vote, a group comprised of janitors, union organizers and student supporters marched from Tilton Hall to Ballou Hall, holding signs and chanting slogans supporting janitors and the contract negotiations in both Spanish and English.

Janitors march to Ballou Hall on Oct. 27 after voting yes to authorize a strike if necessary when the current contract for Tufts workers expires on Oct 31. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

Janitors march to Ballou Hall on Oct. 27 after voting yes to authorize a strike if necessary when the current contract for Tufts workers expires on Oct 31. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

At Ballou, Tufts Labor Coalition member Nicole Joseph announced that she and other students would be meeting with central university administration to discuss the contract negotiations and support for janitors but that the university had informed her no workers or union members would be allowed to attend.

According to Joseph, a junior, she and five other students attended the meeting with Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Vice President for Communications and Marketing Christine Sanni.

Joseph said she understood that Tufts did not have a direct role in negotiations between C&W Services and 32BJ, but that as C&W Services’ employer, Tufts indirectly carried weight in the negotiations.

“The fact is that Tufts allocates a certain amount of money with C&W and they negotiate their contract — C&W and the administration’s contract — every year,” Joseph said. “So they could decide to give C&W certain directives as they have in the past and decide to give them enough money to cover basic things like full-time work and healthcare, and they’re refusing to do so.”

According to a letter to the Tufts community signed by Campbell, while the university was hopeful that the negotiations would conclude with an agreement that was fair to all parties, Tufts itself was not involved.

“By law, Tufts is not a party to these negotiations. All wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment for C&W janitors who work at Tufts are determined by the site agreement negotiated between the SEIU and C&W,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, in the event of a strike, “C&W has prepared a contingency plan to continue to provide janitorial services to Tufts.”

Rivera said that she and the workers understood the gravity of their decision to authorize a strike and the importance of the contract negotiations, but that the high stakes require bold actions.

“They’re not easy [decisions] obviously, but almost 200 families depend on … what we end up deciding to do come Monday,” Rivera said.

Colon stressed the seriousness and the determination of the workers to reach their negotiation goals.

“If the company doesn’t get on board with our proposals, there will be a strike,” she said.