Janitors organize around petition asking for better working conditions

Tufts Labor Coalition protests university workers' conditions in front of Ballou Hall on April 22, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts janitors are organizing for better working conditions, starting with a petition listing demands published on the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) Facebook page on April 6 and culminating most recently with a demonstration on Friday during Jumbo Days.

The petition calls on Tufts and Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) Services, the company Tufts contracts for its custodial labor, to address five demands: the firing of C&W Assistant Manager Douglas Interiano, the creation of a three-month trial period for newly hired supervisors, a mandated 15-minute break for all part-time employees, a clear explanation for changes in work schedule and workload and an assurance that available hours will be offered to part-timers before temporary workers.

The petition has close to 100 signatures from the roughly 115 janitors on the Medford/Somerville campus, according to David Ferrándiz, a senior and member of TLC. Ferrándiz said the petition has received more than 1,000 signatures in total from janitors, students, professors and other community members.

Activists and janitors say the demands come as already strenuous working conditions for janitors further deteriorate.

“I don’t think it’s an event per se [that set off the organizing], but rather a series of conditions that have grown significantly worse,” Ferrándiz said. “There is a very long history of janitor abuse.”

In particular, the treatment of one janitor provided a rallying point for janitors to come together across shifts and organize. In a testimony published on the TLC’s Facebook page, the janitor described how excessive workload and poor treatment by Interiano pushed her to the point of collapse on March 2.

“We all knew he was doing bad things, but what tipped the water was how he treated her,” one janitor said, who spoke to the Daily on the condition of anonymity due to concerns for her job. “When we found out, we agreed, ‘Now no more.'”

She noted that the employee had still not returned to work, and it was lucky that she was even still alive. Three janitors in total spoke anonymously about their experiences.

Additionally, shop stewards, who are janitor representatives to the union, were recently elected, and these new leaders feel empowered to use their roles to create change, janitors said.

Noah Harris, a sophomore and member of TLC, said that there have been unprecedented increases in workload.

“There have been lots of complaints from janitors about increasing workload, just people taking entire buildings by themselves, whereas historically the building was being done by more than one person,” Harris said.

When janitors are given more work than they can complete, they may be punished, one janitor said. According to the janitor, supervisors inspect buildings frequently and give janitors warnings based on the quality and quantity of work, and a worker can be laid off after three warnings.

This change explains the janitors’ demand to “provide a clear explanation and rationale every time there is a change by management to a janitor’s work schedule or workload,” as is stated on the published petition. Other worker demands are also based in their experiences with management.

For example, the call to fire C&W Assistant Manager Douglas Interiano was based on negative experiences workers have had with him. In a letter published on TLC’s Facebook page on April 8, workers described Interiano swearing at workers and yelling at them for not completing small tasks. Interiano did not respond to requests for comment.

Janitors say that, in addition to Interiano, newly-hired supervisors have mistreated workers. Ferrándiz mentioned that one of them is responsible for removing the 15-minute break for part-timers.

“The break has been a precedent since the 1990s, since outsourcing, and that’s something they took away with a wave of a wand with the arrival of a new supervisor,” Ferrándiz said. “That’s really alarming because it shows whose voice, whose experience matters. … The voice that dictates is the voice of supervisors.”

Nonetheless, the janitors who spoke anonymously with the Daily said that, as a matter of strategy, they are focused on removing Interiano first because he is the worst, and they will work to take on supervisors afterward.

One janitor explained that the aim of the second demand, which would designate a three-month trial period for all new supervisors, could prevent future cases of mistreatment by ensuring that supervisors are responsible and respectful to workers.

Shawn Amaral, C&W site manager on the Medford/Somerville campus, repeatedly declined to comment on the issue. Requests for an interview were referred to Christine Wickes, vice president of marketing and communications at C&W headquarters in Chicago.

“We take all employees’ concerns seriously and are reviewing the allegations in accordance with our human resources policies and processes, which also protect the privacy of all employees involved. As a result, we cannot comment further,” Wickes told the Daily in an email.

Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of public relations, said the matter will be handled by C&W Services.

“We value C&W janitors’ contributions to our community,” he told the Daily in an email. “The issues that have been raised are properly addressed by their employer, C&W.”

This most recent organizing comes on the heels of a new contract for the janitors, which was approved on Nov. 3, 2016 and was generally seen as a victory for the janitors. However, janitors interviewed for this article said that C&W has not been abiding by the contract. Specifically, janitors are now accusing supervisors of violating the contract by offering hours to temporary workers before part-timers.

However, many of the janitors’ demands fall outside of issues directly stipulated in the contract. For example, TLC member and junior Nicole Joseph noted in a Nov. 4, 2016 Daily article that the contract did not address workload. Similarly, Ferrándiz noted that the elimination of the 15-minute break violates a longstanding precedent but no contract or law.

Partially for this reason, the janitors are organizing largely without the support of their union, 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), according to Harris.

Additionally, janitors said that they were taking organizing into their own hands because the union must act through slow legal mechanisms, but their complaints require urgent attention.

“At this point, since the conditions are so urgent, [they’re] going [to address] the demands for themselves to address the urgent conditions and then the union will do what they can in other ways,” Ferrándiz said, translating for the three janitors collectively.

However, the janitors interviewed for this article also expressed workers’ dissatisfaction with the union, and a desire for 32BJ SEIU to take a greater role in the current negotiations in order to respond to mistreatment by C&W Services. Workers said that the union will be meeting with C&W Services today. Additionally, C&W Services human resources met with part-timers yesterday.

“Neither the company nor the university, knowing everything that’s happening … they didn’t ask, ‘What’s happening with this person, who are the people who have been affected, who’s been damaged?'” a janitor said. “They’ve turned a blind eye, as if we didn’t exist.”

Janitors are still worried that speaking out may have negative consequences for them, Ferrándiz said, a factor which he believes impacted turnout at Friday’s rally. Despite these concerns, janitors are signing the petition with their names, Harris said.

“I think that we’re still working through overcoming fear together because students risk much less than workers,” Ferrándiz said. “There wasn’t the biggest turnout [at the rally]. And I think that speaks to [the fact that] it’s an ongoing process of transcending fear and fighting for what is most wanted.”

Editor’s Note: This article includes paraphrases and quotes from three C&W Services janitors who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Their interview with the Daily was translated in-person from Spanish to English by TLC member David Ferrándiz, and the direct quotes that appear in this article were translated by Vanessa Zighelboim, an assistant copy editor at the Daily.

Emma Steiner contributed reporting to this article.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Shawn Amaral, C&W Services site manager. The Daily regrets this error.