Tentative agreement reached in dining negotiations, strike averted

Left to right: Denise Seta, Mehmuda Kanyat, Josephine Norton and Tina Lavanga celebrate the announcement of the tentative agreement at Hotung Café. (Alexander Thompson / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts University dining workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26, reached a tentative agreement in contract negotiations with the university after eight months of talks, lifting the threat of a strike that dining workers voted to authorize two weeks ago.

The agreement was announced in a joint statement by the two sides in an email sent to the Tufts community on Friday, March 29.

We are proud that good faith negotiations by both sides have reached a successful conclusion. We look forward to continued collaboration as we move ahead,” the statement read.

The email, signed by University President Anthony Monaco and Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell, went on to summarize the agreement.

According to the summary, the university has agreed that it will raise base pay over four years and allow dining workers to switch from the Tufts University health plan to a healthcare option offered by UNITE HERE Local 26, though workers would be given the opportunity to retain their current plan at the same rates.

The summary also stated that the university will convert 50 workers on temporary contracts, who currently make up a significant percentage of Tufts Dining employees, to regular employees.

Issues of wages, healthcare and temporary contracts have been the key points holding up the negotiations since last semester, Mike Kramer, the lead negotiator for UNITE HERE Local 26, has told the Daily in interviews and emails since January.

The members of UNITE HERE Local 26 will now have the opportunity to review the agreement before a ratification vote that will take place on Wednesday, according to Trisha O’Brien, a dining service attendant at Kindlevan Café and a member of the the union’s bargaining committee.

After the announcement of the agreement, both the workers and their supporters in the student body were exuberant; a group of workers and activists participated in what O’Brien described as a “victory lap,” which was met with cheering and clapping from students as it made its way through the dining halls.

A video posted this morning on UNITE HERE Local 26’s Facebook page shows workers and Kramer celebrating and performing the “unity clap” moments after the agreement had been reached, during which the workers clapped faster and faster in unison and cheered.

O’Brien said that she was overjoyed that an agreement had been reached and praised her co-workers, UNITE HERE Local 26 and students for their support during the many months of negotiations.

“We are unbreakable. That’s what we started with, that’s what we ended with and we all stuck together. We are so happy, we can’t believe it,” she said. “It was scary at times, but we held together.”

O’Brien said she was especially pleased with the concessions made by the university on wages, which will now be collectively bargained instead of being merit-based and the decision of Tufts Dining managers, which she said would prevent retaliation and discrimination.

According to O’Brien, workers will see wages go up by $1.25 the first year, then $0.95, $1 and $1 in the successive years under the tentative agreement. Patrick Collins, executive director of public relations for the university, confirmed these numbers in an email to the Daily. 

O’Brien and Collins also said that healthcare could be more affordable under the tentative agreement, as the workers would be able to purchase a union-backed plan with lower premiums than the Tufts healthcare options, and that the university would pay up to 95% of the cost after four years depending on the plan, an increase from the 62% Tufts currently pays for some of the health plans, O’Brien said.

Christine Tringale, a night cook supervisor at Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run, saw relief for her family in the new union healthcare option that would be offered.

“For my family, the insurance was really high and it made it hard to save money and ever be comfortable,” Tringale said. “So now that my insurance is going to be cheaper and I’m going to be making living wages, I’ll be able to probably go on vacations with my family, spend more time [with them] and do things that I want to do.”

The tentative agreement was met with celebration by the many Tufts Dining workers on temporary contracts, as it means they may be converted to full-time employment if the agreement is ratified, meaning that they could receive higher wages and more benefits and will no longer have to reapply for their jobs every semester.

Tina Lavanga, who works on a temporary contract at Hotung Café, said she was “lost for words” after hearing of the agreement.

“It’s wonderful. Our paycheck is going to be more, we’re going to be eligible for benefits that we weren’t before. Everything that a regular worker gets, we get … it’s amazing. After working [at Tufts] for 11 years, I get this,” she said.

Workers also expressed relief that a strike had been averted. Two weeks ago, the workers had voted overwhelmingly to authorize the UNITE HERE Local 26 bargaining committee to call a strike, and some preparations took place this week, including a meeting on Tuesday held by Tufts Dining Action Coalition (TDAC) to brief students on a possible strike and a “practice” picket by workers that had been scheduled for this afternoon.

“Every [dining worker was] really happy and crying because no one wanted to go on strike and everybody was just overwhelmed — we were all overwhelmed,” O’Brien said. “Because a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, and it was going to be a hardship for them, but they were going to do it.”

It is unclear how the two sides reached a breakthrough, but many workers and students attributed it to the actions and protests that have put pressure on the Tufts administration and marked the campaign.

O’Brien said that the backing of the students was crucial.

“Without the students we wouldn’t have this contract, because they backed us 100% … I don’t know what we would’ve done without them,” she said.

Throughout this week, groups of students organized by TDAC confronted senior Tufts administrators in Ballou Hall and across campus demanding action in the talks.

Jaclyn Tsiang, a junior and member of TDAC, told the Daily that she thought it was only through workers and students coming together that the campaign was ultimately successful.

“Tufts can say that they care about the dining workers, but if we’re being honest, they were not going to settle for the workers’ demands. At the beginning, they rejected all of them. It’s taken a lot of work and sacrifices to get here,” Tsiang said.

Jesse Ryan, another member of TDAC, said that the mood on campus after news of the agreement broke was electric.

As for TDAC, Ryan said the next step was to celebrate the tentative agreement with the workers in the coming days.

“Students and workers made this happen,” Ryan said.


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