Fair Wages, Fair Education: The Union Struggle at Tufts


From SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild to the United Auto Workers, union-led efforts have seen mobilization and impacts across the country at a scale grander than any in the past few decades. This national trend is mirrored by recent developments at Tufts. On August 25, Tufts Student Life sent a statement to the student body, writing that “Union negotiations are quite common at Tufts. However, this fall we have an unusually high number of them taking place simultaneously.” These include recent struggles led by dining workers, RAs, SMFA Professors of the Practice, SMFA part-time lecturers, and graduate student workers. 

Two groups in particular—SMFA part-time lecturers (PTLs) and Tufts University graduate student workers—are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509 and remain in active negotiations with the university about their contracts.

SMFA Part-Time Lecturers 

SMFA PTLs have been negotiating pay increases to bring them in line with other creative faculty. Lizi Brown, a lecturer in the Drawing and Painting Department at the SMFA, said in a written statement to the Tufts Observer, “Tufts has a corporate culture of paying visual art faculty less than other creative faculty.” This culture was summarized in a graphic posted by the student-run account @smfastudentsforfaculty, which stated that Tufts administration thinks “SMFA Studio Art Faculty are less valuable because we do not give enough reading and writing assignments… [and] do not spend as much time for course preparation… and [we] work less because studio art classes have in-class work time.”

A focal point of the PTLs’ platform is restructuring review boards, which are extended discussions of a student’s work at the end of each semester. Prior to the start of negotiations, the contracts of PTLs included compensation for the completion of eight mandatory review boards per course, with five review boards conducted per day. Recent negotiations have resulted in the requirement being dropped, and a pay-per-board policy, in which PTLs are paid on the basis of the number of review boards they complete, has been instituted in its place. 

This change, however, has had other impacts for PTLs. In order to both support their students’ learning and maintain their previous pay level, PTLs continue to conduct review boards. Noting that PTLs can only complete about five boards per day, John Ros, a part time lecturer at the SMFA and member of the Bargaining Committee and the Contract Action Team of the SEIU Local 509, explained that PTLs are forced to “come in [on] days they are not scheduled to teach” in order to complete review boards. An anonymous faculty member at the SMFA attributed this to a change in the academic calendar, from review boards occurring over the course of 10 days to only seven or eight days, which is not accessible to all PTLs and their work schedules.

PTLs, as Ros wrote, “find [the current review board structure] unacceptable due to other work, career or personal obligations.” According to the anonymous faculty member, there have been cases of PTLs not showing up to review boards, likely because of conflicts with their other commitments. Essentially, according to Ros, “the SMFA is asking us to become full time employees for two weeks out of the term,” despite their designation as PTLs. Ros stressed that the union has historically pushed for a more equitable schedule that would allow PTLs to “fulfill their required boards on the days that they teach.”

The pay-per-review board policy amounts to around a 16.6 percent pay decrease if no review boards are completed. This decrease reflects a restructuring in the pay for review boards. “It’s very crazy—the schedules that are asked of them during that time, across the board… and then [to] not… pay well for the service that they’re providing,” said Joy Bedford, a senior in the BFA program at the SMFA. Bedford also argued that the current system disadvantages students as well, stating that “all of the professor feedback is probably the most critical to students, but if they’re stretched so thin, they can’t commit their full attention because they aren’t able to get enough rest to recuperate for the next day.” They suggested some reforms, holding that the “review boards need a little bit more time.” 

Bedford noted their appreciation for meaningful feedback from PTLs during review boards. “I know I’ve definitely had review boards where the faculty kind of made or broke what was going on in the room,” they said.

Tufts University Graduate Student Workers

On the Medford campus, graduate student workers provide instructional and research services to students and professors and are also mobilizing to increase their pay. In a written statement to the Observer, Sam Alterman, a Bargaining Committee Member and PhD student from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said, “Grad labor is central to the day-to-day functioning of academia, and our campaign for a living wage here at Tufts is part of a national movement of grad workers demanding that the multi-billion dollar institutions we work for treat us with respect and dignity.” Alterman asserted that that “Grad workers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions” and that Tufts University Graduate Workers Union is “fighting for a contract which invests in the human infrastructure of Tufts, ensuring that grad workers are paid a living wage and receive just benefits so that we can provide the top notch education our students deserve.”

In a written statement to the Observer, Bryan Rust, a Bargaining Committee Member from the Department of Mathematics, echoed these sentiments. “I don’t think anyone should be surprised then that graduate workers are demanding compensation commensurate with their work. I think what is unique to Tufts is the direness of the cost of living situation,” Rust wrote. Tufts graduate workers are paid significantly below the cost of living in the area, which is especially concerning “when compared to Tufts’ self-identified peers.” Similar sentiments were shared by the SMFA PTLs in their written statements to the Observer.

The Continued Battle for Fairness

In reference to the high number of negotiations occurring simultaneously, Brown contends that “the university chose this timing,” as the administration asked the SMFA PTLs to postpone their negotiations until March 2023, when they had presented the aforementioned pay cuts. Matt Kalan, a Contract Action Team Member from the Department of Chemistry, explained in a written statement to the Observer that these negotiations have been especially contentious as the cost of living continues to rise aggressively in the area surrounding Tufts. The university’s lack of urgency in regards to the cost of living is making the struggle for corresponding adjustments to pay and benefits “a real fight.”

Along with the majority of Americans supporting union activity, Tufts has portrayed itself as a staunch supporter of bargaining rights. In a statement sent to the student body on August 31, Tufts Student Life reiterated that “Tufts respects the rights of all our employees… to engage in concerted, protected activity, including the right to unionize.” Members of the Tufts Labor Coalition, however, feel that Tufts University has falsely represented itself. “Tufts has bargained in bad faith, open[ing] negotiations by demanding a pay cut,” they asserted in a written statement to the Observer.

“A dominant narrative that we often encounter as graduate students and workers is that we are supposed to struggle. Graduate school is hard and that’s just the way it is. Our professors struggled when they were graduate students so it’s completely normal that we are struggling as well,” said Casey O’Reilly, a Bargaining Committee Member from the Department of English. She went on, writing, “By fighting for a livable wage, we are fighting to alleviate the financial burden that so many of us bear in order to build a more welcoming and inclusive educational environment for graduate student workers from all backgrounds.” 

This reflects the circumstances of grad students reported in a Campus Climate Survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research at Tufts. According to the report, 75 percent of grad students selected “My basic needs are not met by my income” or “It’s tight but my needs are met.”

There have been many developments since the start of this recent bout of union negotiations. Dining workers had wins over the summer. The RAs recently passed their first contract, meeting many of their demands. Ros informed the Observer that on September 15, the university offered the SMFA PTLs a pay increase for the first time since recent negotiations began and a counter proposal that has reduced the number of required review boards from eight to five per course. Most recently, the members of TUGWU walked out in protest during the inauguration of Tufts’ newest president, Sunil Kumar.

Students on both the SMFA and Medford/Somerville campuses have shown support for unionized PTLs and grad students. Bedford attended a TLC-led teach-in at the SMFA about the PTL cause, where students discussed the union’s demands and the realities faced by the lecturers. “You want to believe that the money that you pay means that you’re getting a better education, means that your educators are being paid well, and then to find out that that’s not necessarily true is like really upsetting to learn,” Bedford said. 

Bedford also appealed to fellow students for support of the PTLs, writing that “Getting involved as a student is super important and especially getting your parents involved is really important because… parents have so much power, like if they email the school and start to raise concerns,” the school would find it much harder to ignore them relative to students, “as they have previously and continue to do.” As the members of TLC wrote, “No contract negotiation, no grievance, no demand exists in isolation. Although it may seem that there are many ‘fights’ for respect and dignity by workers all around the country, this is one fight. This is everyone’s fight.” According to Ros, “Universities have long profited off the work of marginalized employees, creating a system of exploitation for profit. It is time for these practices to end!”