Local mayors, Somerville City Council declare their support for dining workers

Tufts dining workers, members of Tufts Dining Action Coalition and members of the Somerville City Council pose for a portrait in Somerville City Hall on Feb. 28. (Via Tufts Dining Action Coalition's Facebook page)

The Somerville City Council and the mayors of both Somerville and Medford publicly backed Tufts Dining workers’ campaign for a favorable contract with the university over the past week, in a striking signal of public support.

A video of Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone endorsing the dining workers’ campaign was posted on Feb. 25 on the Tufts Dining Action Coalition (TDAC) Facebook page, while a similar video of Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke followed on Saturday evening.

In both videos, the mayors wore “We love our cafeteria workers” buttons and affirmed their support for the workers in their negotiations with the university.

The Somerville City Council unanimously adopted a resolution affirming their support at their biweekly meeting last Thursday evening, according to a video of the city council meeting on the council’s website.

Somerville City Council President Katjana Ballantyne of Ward 7, which includes Tufts, said that she worked with organizers from UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing the dining workers, to write the resolution.

“We’re neighbors, meaning we’re a community,” she said. “If we can help them, [we’ll] support them in any way because it became obvious how a lot of these workers create the home for the students who are away from their home.”

Dining workers and students sporting red t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “One Job Should Be Enough” filled the City Council’s chambers and listened as the resolution, entitled “Supporting the Tufts Dining Workers ‘One Job Should Be Enough’ campaign,” was read out by City Clerk John Long.

The resolution took aim at the university’s labor policies before endorsing the campaign.

The resolution devoted special focus to use of temporary contracts, which it claimed increase economic precariousness and strain the school system and other city services; the resolution said one quarter of Tufts Dining workers have this type of contract.

“Large institutions such as Tufts University should lead by example by ensuring that ‘One Job Should Be Enough’ to live in Somerville,” it read.

The Somerville City Council then heard from two Tufts Dining workers, Lucson Aime, a first cook at Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center, and Paul Rudolph, a culinary production chef at the central kitchen and bakery, who spoke in favor of the resolution.

Rudolph recounted stories of former Tufts Dining workers who were afraid to retire until their 80s and others who had been forced to move out of Somerville because they could not afford rent.

“We take care of thousands of students each year, while me and my co-workers are forced to choose between healthcare and daycare for our kids. We should be able to pay for both and more while working for one of the richest universities in the United States,” Aime said.

Aime told the city councilors that he had been forced to move out of Somerville, and urged them to support the resolution.

“I really want to be able to look back on this day and know that the City of Somerville stood with us,” he said.

The floor was then opened to discussion and several councilors took the opportunity to weigh in on the situation.

Councilor Mark Niedergang of Ward 5, who also wore one of the red “One Job Should Be Enough” shirts, expressed his support for the workers before directly criticizing the University.

“I’m a Tufts graduate and my daughter is a Tufts graduate. I wish I could say that this is a surprise or unprecedented, but Tufts has a long history of treating its workers badly,” he said. 

Councilor-at-large Wilfred N. Mbah also praised the workers’ movement and took the University to task.

“This is a moral issue. This is not something [Tufts] should be doing,” he said, “I hope [University President Anthony Monaco] will take swift action to address this issue immediately.”

After the councilors finished speaking, Ballantyne announced the passage of the resolution. This was met by a standing ovation from dining workers and students.

Ballantyne told the Daily the Somerville City Council will mail a copy of the resolution to Monaco today.

Patrick Collins, executive director of public relations at Tufts, disputed the characterization of Tufts’ labor policies presented at the meeting.

The university values all of its employees, many of whom are union members, and we appreciate the important work that our dining employees do for Tufts and its students,” he wrote in an email.

Rocco DiRico, executive director of community relations at Tufts, said that Tufts continues to maintain great relationships with local governments.

DiRico cited a recent speech given by Mayor Burke at Tufts, a visit by the Somerville state legislative delegation to campus and various partnerships with the City of Somerville as evidence, and said that the negotiations are not jeopardizing this cooperation.

“In this case, the Somerville City Council is expressing its support for a particular cause and we respect their right to do so,” DiRico wrote in an email. “We value our partnership with the City and appreciate their willingness to work with the University.”

Ballantyne offered a measured appraisal, calling the partnership between Tufts and Somerville “off-and-on.”

Dining workers and student activists were encouraged by the support of the political leaders and counted the resolution’s adoption as a victory in their campaign, said Joel Appel-Kraut, a member of TDAC present for the meeting.

“Every time somebody stands up in support … of the dining hall workers it adds another voice, adds another person saying that this is what should happen and this is what solidarity looks like,” Appel-Kraut, a first-year, said.

Tina Lavanga, who works on a temporary contract at Hotung Café and was present at the council meeting on Thursday, said that she felt touched by the councilors who had told their stories about organized labor and past labor struggles at Tufts.

“I felt very good seeing all the students and my co-workers being there and seeing all the city council supporting us — it’s wonderful,” she said.

Lavanga went on to say that the support from Somerville would help them win a new contract and that the workers are ready to do “whatever it takes.”

Mike Kramer, the lead negotiator for UNITE HERE Local 26, urged the University to take note of the resolution.

“The unanimous passage of this resolution shows that the communities that surround Tufts recognize that the demands of the dining workers are reasonable and reflect the values of these communities. It’s time for the university administration to recognize the same thing,” Kramer wrote in an email to the Daily.

However, Kramer said that the two sides still disagree over several of the workers’ key demands.

Collins said that the University had made proposals on economic issues back in December, which have yet to be resolved, but that tentative agreement had been reached on 27 issues, including five during the latest round of talks on Feb. 27.

“The parties continue to negotiate in good faith over benefits, wages and paid time off. The University remains committed to reaching a contract that is both fair and fiscally responsible,” he wrote.

Kramer said that the university simply opposes the union on some of the economic issues.

“The proposals aren’t terribly complicated,” he said.