Tufts Students Stage ‘Indefinite’ Hunger Strike Against Janitor Layoffs

Rachel Luban May 4, 2015

The university has responded by enclosing the students within a fenced-in area. (Tufts Labor Coalition / YouTube)

Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents launched a hunger strike and took over a quad next to the Medford/​Somerville campus’s main admin­is­tra­tive build­ing Sun­day to protest planned lay­offs of 35 jan­i­tors. Five under­grad­u­ates joined the indef­i­nite” hunger strike as a show of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the jan­i­tors, 17 per­cent of whom are slat­ed to lose their jobs. Dozens more stu­dents set up tents on a quad they plan to occu­py day and night until the cuts are halted.

Ade­lai­da Colon, a cus­to­di­an at Tufts for the past 18 years, doesn’t know what she’d do if she lost her job. It would affect me immense­ly,” she says. Her hus­band is dis­abled and hasn’t been able to work for 12 years, mak­ing her the bread­win­ner. He depends on me, because his income is very small, $800 a month.”

Because of her senior­i­ty, Colon’s job is prob­a­bly safe for the moment. But she says the cuts would be dev­as­tat­ing for all the jan­i­tors — even the ones who kept their jobs. She and her col­leagues would have to take on the extra clean­ing. I think if I had any more, I couldn’t do the work,” she says. The stu­dent group orga­niz­ing the protests, Tufts Labor Coali­tion (TLC), says cam­pus facil­i­ties have already expand­ed near­ly 10 per­cent in the last five years, increas­ing the area that needs cleaning.

The jan­i­tors are not employed direct­ly by the uni­ver­si­ty, but are sub­con­tract­ed through real estate ser­vices giant DTZ. Nev­er­the­less, activists says the uni­ver­si­ty is respon­si­ble for the lay­offs because it decid­ed to slash cus­to­di­al costs by $900,000. The uni­ver­si­ty said in an op-ed in the Tufts Dai­ly that elim­i­nat­ing one in six cus­to­di­an posi­tions is one ele­ment of an insti­tu­tion-wide com­mit­ment to improve oper­a­tional effi­cien­cies so that Tufts’ lim­it­ed resources can be direct­ed to its core mis­sion — pro­vid­ing an excep­tion­al edu­ca­tion to tal­ent­ed stu­dents and recruit­ing out­stand­ing fac­ul­ty to teach and men­tor them.” It says DTZ’s high-effi­cien­cy, labor-sav­ing equip­ment” will help the jan­i­tors clean more areas in less time” and that DTZ will attempt to hire laid off work­ers else­where in the city.

TLC points out that the university’s assets and fundrais­ing have risen steadi­ly over the past five years — as have stu­dent charges. Last year Tufts fundraised $91 mil­lion and held assets total­ing $2.1 bil­lion. Uni­ver­si­ty Pres­i­dent Antho­ny Mona­co made over $760,000 in 2012.

Stu­dents say they resort­ed to the hunger strike after months of pres­sur­ing the Tufts admin­is­tra­tion proved fruit­less. March­es, sit-ins, biweek­ly meet­ings with admin­is­tra­tors and even res­o­lu­tions from the Med­ford and Somerville city coun­cils con­demn­ing the lay­offs did not move the uni­ver­si­ty. TLC and the jan­i­tors togeth­er decid­ed on more dras­tic mea­sures, part­ly because the jan­i­tors are con­trac­tu­al­ly for­bid­den from strik­ing them­selves. They say the strike and occu­pa­tion will con­tin­ue until the admin­is­tra­tion agrees to sus­pend cuts until the next time SEIU Local 32BJ rene­go­ti­ates the jan­i­tors’ con­tract in 2016.

We don’t want to be hunger strik­ing,” says first-year Mica Jarmel-Schnei­der, one of the five stu­dents who stopped eat­ing Sun­day after­noon. He empha­sized that the hunger strike and occu­pa­tion are about the jan­i­tors, not the stu­dents. It’s not fun for us, and we’re not try­ing to draw atten­tion to our­selves. But we real­ly see this as a huge way to lever­age pres­sure and pow­er against these cuts. And we hope that the uni­ver­si­ty will lis­ten to us because we are lit­er­al­ly in their backyard.”

The uni­ver­si­ty respond­ed to the occu­pa­tion in its back­yard by enclos­ing the occu­piers in a fenced-in perime­ter. TLC mem­ber Anna Gae­bler says that the sole open­ing in the fence is under con­stant police mon­i­tor­ing. A Tufts stu­dent ID is required to enter the quad, keep­ing out jan­i­tors and media. This morn­ing one of the cus­to­di­al work­ers, Paula, tried to come in and say hel­lo to all the stu­dents who have been work­ing with her, and the police removed her from the space,” Gae­bler said.

The uni­ver­si­ty has not giv­en an offi­cial expla­na­tion for the fence. It respond­ed to inter­view requests with a state­ment say­ing that stu­dents are free to demon­strate and that the uni­ver­si­ty is doing its best to keep the demon­stra­tion area secure.” Across the quad, a stage is being read­ied for graduation.

This is not the first fight over jan­i­tors’ jobs in Tufts’ his­to­ry. In the 1990s, Tufts switched from direct­ly employ­ing cus­to­di­ans to sub­con­tract­ing them out. That sparked a process of cut­ting wages, ben­e­fits and jobs — and pre­cip­i­tat­ed a fight much like the cur­rent one. Pro­tes­tors held week­ly pick­ets of the same admin­is­tra­tive build­ing now in sight of occu­piers’ tents. The behav­ior of the Tufts Admin­is­tra­tion is an echo of an alarm­ing devel­op­ment, the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of acad­e­mia,” physics pro­fes­sor Gary Gold­stein said in a 1998 speech on the jan­i­tors’ strug­gle to the Eth­i­cal Soci­ety of Boston.

Indeed, jan­i­to­r­i­al ser­vices are emblem­at­ic of the rapid spread of cor­po­rate sub­con­tract­ing. In his book The Fis­sured Work­place, econ­o­mist David Weil describes jan­i­to­r­i­al com­pa­nies as in the van­guard of fis­sur­ing,” the split­ting off of jobs that once were man­aged inside cor­po­ra­tions. He doc­u­ments how sub­con­tract­ing erod­ed wages and ben­e­fits, cit­ing one study that found that jan­i­tors who worked as con­trac­tors earned 15% less than those work­ing in-house.”

Tufts’ jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cut­ting the jan­i­tors’ jobs sounds a lot like Weil’s expla­na­tion for why cor­po­ra­tions sub­con­tract. Cor­po­ra­tions increas­ing­ly focus on their core com­pe­ten­cies,” their defin­ing com­pet­i­tive advan­tages or areas of exper­tise, and ruth­less­ly cut costs on every­thing else. Tufts wants to focus on its core mis­sion” of edu­ca­tion and improve oper­a­tional effi­cien­cy” every­where else.

Yet the uni­ver­si­ty is not a cor­po­ra­tion but a non-prof­it with a stat­ed com­mit­ment to all its com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. Its 10-year plan iden­ti­fies rec­og­nize our val­ued staff” as one of its foun­da­tion­al initiatives.

Jarmel-Schnei­der thinks the administration’s refusal to lis­ten to the jan­i­tors speaks for itself. It’s about the bot­tom line for them,” he says.

Ade­lai­da Colon empha­sizes that her job goes way beyond jan­i­to­r­i­al work. We don’t just clean build­ings,” she says. We also keep an eye out for the stu­dents. If a stu­dent gets sick, we keep an eye on them. … We ask, are you hun­gry? Do you have food?” She says the jan­i­tors watch who is com­ing and going on cam­pus and what needs fix­ing. All these things — we’re not just there to clean, we do so much more.”

Rachel Luban is a writer liv­ing in Mary­land. She con­tributes to Full Stop and her work has appeared on Jezebel, The Rum­pus, and In Our Words. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @rachelcluban.
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