Union holds janitors’ protest minutes after winning short-term extension

Supporters gather outside West Hall for the rally on Oct. 29. Will Flamm / The Tufts Daily
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 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union that represents custodians at Tufts University, held a rally on Friday afternoon in front of West Hall in protest of C&W Services’ failure to extend its contract and meet its demands. C&W Services is the facilities contractor hired by Tufts. The protest was held in collaboration with the Tufts Labor Coalition and was attended by workers, union representatives, students and community members.

Originally, the contract between 32BJ SEIU and C&W was set to expire on Oct. 31. A few hours after the rally, Roxana Rivera, executive vice president of 32BJ SEIU, told the Daily that the contract had been extended to Dec. 3. C&W agreed to the extension on Friday, Oct. 29 at 11:48 AM, minutes before the rally took place.

Christina Villafranca, a field representative for 32BJ SEIU; Otoniel Figueroa, field director of 32BJ SEIU district 615 and Adelaida Colón, a janitor and union shop steward who has been working at Tufts for 25 years, addressed the rally; the latter did so in Spanish. Afterwards, attendees started signing a petition before the crowd moved from West to Ballou Hall and eventually entered Ballou.

“We do not want [Tufts] to call these members heroes,” Figueroa said. “We want them to treat them like heroes.”

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“Tufts, escuchan, estamos en la lucha [Tufts, listen, we are in the fight],” the crowd chanted while marching.

In a statement, Tufts Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins asserted that Tufts University was not involved in the contract negotiations between 32BJ SEIU and C&W.

In a subsequent interview with the Daily, Colón explained that the protest took place as the negotiation between C&W and 32BJ SEIU stalled due to the former declining to meet the salary and full-time position increase that the union demanded.

She noted that last October, 32BJ SEIU and C&W reached a one-year deal that increased salary by 65 cents per hour with no new full-time positions. However, during subsequent negotiation, when Colón and the union asked for an annual $1 wage increase and three more full-time positions for the next two years, C&W refused.

“When I asked [the C&W lawyer] why [he didn’t] want to give me more money, he said because Tufts [has] a lot of things [to pay for] … now it’s made no money. I know that’s not true,” Colón said. “[Many janitors] don’t have full-time jobs. [They] don’t have any benefits. All the benefits they have are a couple of sick days, but [they] don’t have medical insurance.”

Colón went on to explain that she fought for more full-time positions every year because part-time positions do not include sufficient benefits. For her, the inflation resulting from the pandemic exacerbated the economic difficulty experienced by workers, but didn’t affect as much the very people who rejected their demands.

“Everything is expensive — how are we surviving?” Colón said. “[Despite] the pandemic, [C&W didn’t] pay extra money for anybody. People are so sick, [but it] doesn’t want to pay for insurance … [while the contractors] are taking vacations, taking sick days.”

Colón also explained that Tufts’ sanitation policy in light of the pandemic brought extra burden onto its janitorial workers, who did not received matching compensation in return. Tufts also failed to hire  new personnel for assistance.

“Extra disinfection, extra chemicals … now you need to disinfect everywhere,” Colón said. “Before I [could] clean the shower once or twice a week, now it’s every day. It’s a lot, and it’s hard to work like that … with the same [number of] people.”

After entering Ballou, the rally was uncertain if the administrators heard its demand, according to Alexis Hedvat, an organizer with the TLC.

“We were knocking on the door and saw two people in one of the offices who were not opening the door for us and ignoring [our] knocks,” Hedvat, a junior, said in an electronic message to the Daily. “Finally somebody opened the door. We asked if we could give them the petition to give to [University President Tony Monaco] and they said they would give it to him. We asked if we could watch them put it on his desk, but they refused to let us do that, saying, ‘I will make sure it gets to him.’”

In 1994, Tufts began outsourcing its custodial service. Before, custodians were still considered university employees who received health-care packages, tuition remission and pension plans. The change in 1994 saved Tufts an estimate of $2 million over the following few years and stripped janitors of most of their benefits. The following two-and-a-half decades were marked by further downsizing and restructuring, the most notable illustration taking place in 1998, when 20 laid-off janitors struggled to obtain  food.

The worsening working condition for custodians was also met with continual resistance from workers, students, faculty and community members. The Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) was formed in summer 2001 to more widely spread the 1994 decision to the Tufts community, and Jumbo Janitor Alliance (JJA) was founded in 2007 to advocate for custodial workers’ rights at Tufts.

In a statement sent in an email to the Daily, Rivera applauded the grassroots efforts and urged C&W to meet the workers’ demands.

“Throughout the pandemic, 32BJ custodians and other essential workers at Tufts have kept campus clean and sanitary for the entire community, even as they have suffered tremendously from the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis,” Rivera said in the statement. “Now, they need and deserve a fair contract with consistent, full-time jobs so that they can recover from this crisis.”

Collins reaffirmed that custodial workers are employees of C&W, and that any grievances should be heard by C&W and not by the university. 

“We appreciate all that C&W employees do to create an environment that is conducive to learning and working for our students, faculty and staff,” Collins wrote in an email to the Daily. “We have forwarded the letter we received from C&W employees to C&W, and we are hopeful the two sides will resolve any outstanding issues in their ongoing negotiations.”

Correction: A previous version of this article did not effectively distinguish the difference between C&W Services and Tufts University. It also did not specify when C&W Services and 32BJ SEIU agreed to the contract extension to Dec. 3. Tufts University is not party to the contract negotiations between C&W Serivces and 32BJ Service Employees International Union, and the contract extension was agreed to on Oct. 29.. The Daily regrets these errors.

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