Workmen’s Circle fifth graders demonstrate support for Tufts dining workers

Over 60 people, including children, families, dining workers and Tufts students, gathered in front of Ballou Hall on Sunday afternoon as part of a demonstration on behalf of UNITE HERE Local 26, the union which represents Tufts dining. Led by fifth-grade students from the Jewish Cultural Sunday School at Boston Workmen’s Circle, the purpose of the demonstration was to encourage dining workers in their negotiation process for a union contract.

The Sunday School at Workmen’s Circle emphasizes Jewish history, culture and progressive ideals, according to its website. Every year, students from Workmen’s Circle lead a demonstration against unfair labor conditions. According to an organizer from Workmen’s Circle, they chose to support the Tufts dining workers because of its “timeliness” and alignment with the center’s mission.

At 2:00 pm, students arrived by school bus to address a crowd of Tufts students, dining workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 26, and members of the community. Students and members of the center distributed handmade signs to the crowd that read “we support Tufts dining workers” and “we demand fair wages.”

Signaling the start of the event, students from the Workmen’s Circle gained the crowd’s attention by leading them in chants, taking turns leading the crowd.

In front of Ballou Hall, the crowd chanted, “there ain’t no power like the power of the people, ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.”

One ten-year-old student led the crowd in chants in Spanish, shouting “el pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” (the people united will never be defeated).

Following the chants, another student from the center stepped onto a milk crate and began reading an opening statement drafted by students from Workmen’s Circle Sunday School.

The opening statement advocated for lower healthcare costs, benefits for temporary workers and higher wages. The student reading the statement said the center and its members stand with the dining workers in solidarity, adding that solidarity means “unity despite differences.”

After the opening statement, dining worker Zahra Warsame addressed the crowd about her concerns over healthcare costs. Warsame said the cost of receiving healthcare consumes her budget and that it has forced her to move away from the Medford/Somerville campus in search of less expensive housing.

“We are fighting for affordable healthcare. I pay about 620 dollars a month and my coworker pays 240 dollars a week,” Warsame said in an interview after the event. “Tufts needs to pick up more of the cost so I can invest in my daughter’s education.”

In front of the crowd with two of her grandchildren, Trisha O’Brien, spokesperson for the dining workers’ union, reiterated concerns over wages and temporary workers. In a November 2018 article, Mike Kramer, UNITE HERE Local 26’s lead negotiator, told the Daily that between one-fourth and one-third of dining workers are temporary workers, meaning they do not receive healthcare and other benefits.

O’Brien expressed her appreciation for the students’ support.

“You all are very strong. Thank you for coming out,” O’Brien said to the students from Workmen’s Circle Sunday School.

Following O’Brien and Warsame, the fifth-grade students led the crowd in songs. Accompanied by guitar, the crowd sang This Little Light of Mine, singing “shine my light for justice,” “shine my light for immigrants” and “shine my light to welcome all.”

They also sang the song “Went Down to the Courthouse,” replacing “courthouse” with “dining hall,” “old Ballou [Hall]” and “Monaco” in consecutive verses.

“Went down to the dining hall and I took back what they stole from me,” the crowd sang. “Took back my dignity and I took back my humanity.”

With the students from Workmen’s Circle leading, the crowd marched down the hill to Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center. The students carried a banner they had made that read “solidarity” in large block letters. Upon arriving at Dewick, the crowd waited outside while the students entered to hand the homemade banner to dining hall workers. After exiting Dewick, the students were greeted with applause and they led the crowd in a few final chants.

In an interview after the event, a student from Workmen’s Circle said he attended the event to support Tufts workers because “they deserve higher wages” and to show that young students can be active in civic life.

“It lets other youth know they can speak for a cause,” he said about the demonstration.

Patrick Collins, executive director of public relations for the university, told the Daily in an email that the university has made proposals related to wages, benefits and job protections for employees, as well as proposals to “convert the majority of temporary employees to regular, benefited employees with significant pay increases.”

“While we have a ways to go to complete our work, we believe that both the university and the union teams are working conscientiously to seek to improve the working conditions of dining employees in a responsible manner,” Collins said. “We are committed to continuing our exchange of ideas. We hope that we will be able to reach agreement as soon as possible.”

Warsame said the demonstration added more energy in the dining workers’ effort to secure a contract.

“They were very energetic and positive. They care a lot about our cause and put a lot into today,” Warsame said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Zahra Warsame’s name. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.