Negotiating Respect: Janitors continue to fight for their rights

From Tisch Library to Carmichael Hall, 183 janitors work every day to make Tufts as clean as possible. They sweep floors, take out the trash, and wipe lecture notes off of whiteboards. However, most students barely notice their presence, much less say hello to them in the hallway. 

Adalaida Colón has worked at Tufts as a janitor for 25 years. Over nearly three decades, she’s seen contracting companies come and go, faced difficult supervisors, and even witnessed a student hunger strike in response to 39 threatened layoffs in 2015. Throughout this timespan, janitors have fought against outsourcing, layoffs, understaffing, contract violations, low pay, and discriminatory incidents

“[The administration] wanted to defend their rights and their business. As a worker, I defend the rights of the worker,” Colón said in an interview translated from Spanish. In the midst of ongoing organizing for better working conditions, Colón is thankful for the support of students, who she says have helped the janitors greatly over the years.

During recent union contract negotiations, workers reached a temporary agreement with their contractor C&W, which will be ratified by union members on December 9. The agreement, which is a two year extension of their existing contract, includes many of the provisions janitors advocated for, including yearly wage increases and four new full-time positions. While Tufts students were studying for midterms this fall, the janitors were at the bargaining table, protesting, petitioning, and organizing support—all so they could win fair wages and adequate health care for their families.

Rallying for Rights

Collective bargaining negotiations between the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents Tufts janitors, and C&W were at a standstill when the union held a protest in front of West Hall on October 29. Dozens of students, janitors, and community members attended. Minutes before the rally began, C&W agreed to a short term extension of the workers’ previous contract through December 3.

Following the rally, participants walked to Ballou Hall, where the administration’s offices are housed, and delivered a petition written by SEIU 32BJ to President Tony Monaco. The petition asked Tufts to urge C&W to meet union demands for a yearly wage increase, and end the hiring freeze agreed upon in the beginning of the pandemic. The document reads, “With the [pandemic] beginning to subside, it’s time for C&W to reach an agreement that allows us to support our families—with a fair wage increase and more opportunities for full-time jobs and healthcare.” The petition received 182 signatures.

When the petition deliverers arrived at Ballou, they were initially ignored and left waiting outside the door to the Office of the Provost. Sophomore Alexis Hedvat, a Tufts Labor Coalition member who helped deliver the petition, said in a written statement, “Nobody was opening the doors, but I saw two people hiding in an office inside… it was quite clear to me that they saw/heard us.”

The two individuals eventually opened the door but refused to put the petition on President Monaco’s desk. Hedvat wrote, “I asked that they deliver this petition to President Monaco and [if] we [could] see them deliver it, so we could confirm it was delivered. They declined this request, so we left and the crowd dispersed.”

Following the rally, Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins told The Tufts Daily in an email that “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.”

Collective Bargaining for a Better Contract

Contract negotiations for custodians are conducted directly between the SEIU 32BJ Union and C&W whenever a previous contract is set to expire, and the two parties stay at the collective bargaining table until they reach an agreement. Tufts is not involved in the negotiation process, but the administration does form their own agreement with C&W. 

Collins said in an email to the Tufts Observer that Tufts plays no role in contract negotiations between janitors and C&W. He wrote, “Tufts’ contract with C&W to provide custodial services to the university is unrelated to the terms of the contract between C&W and its employees. Further, Tufts plays absolutely no role in allocating how much of any contract should be devoted toward paying C&W’s employees.”

Nicole Joseph (A’17), a former TLC member who was involved in supporting janitorial campaigns, said that Tufts often shifts blame to contracting companies in order to avoid taking responsibility. “It’s an extremely, extremely common tactic, which [Tufts] will continue to use forever, of saying ‘We don’t really have a role in this. It’s about a third party company,’” Joseph said. 

According to Joseph, C&W and other contracting companies often cite lack of funding from Tufts during contract negotiations, which is why union protests and actions in support of workers usually target Tufts instead of third parties. Joseph said, “Oftentimes in negotiations, [third-party contractors] will say, ‘We need to talk to our client about this, because it has to do with money’…  Tufts is the target because they’re the ones that have the power, but they like to say that they don’t.” Collins declined to provide any information on the contract between Tufts and C&W. 

When contacted, a company spokesperson from C&W Services declined to comment. 

In late November, the janitors’ union and C&W reached a tentative agreement that will set the custodians’ terms of employment for the next two years. This agreement includes much of what workers were advocating for, including wage increases in 2022 and 2023, and the creation of 4 new full-time custodial positions.

Executive Vice President of SEIU 32BJ Roxana Rivera wrote in a statement to the Observer, “With yearly raises, the addition of new full-time positions, and the maintenance of their healthcare and other benefits, these mostly Black, brown, and immigrant custodians and their families will be better able to recover from this devastating pandemic and the resulting economic crisis that has disproportionately impacted their communities.”

Janitors are currently paid $22.20 per hour, which under the proposed agreement will increase to $23.50 in 2023. Union members will vote on ratification of the proposed contract extension on December 9, which needs a simple majority of votes to pass. 

The union is already looking ahead to the next negotiation in 2023, which will likely lead to  a new contract, instead of just an extension. “We look forward to winning more full-time jobs in 2023,” wrote Rivera.

Organizing Over the Years

Janitors have a long history of organizing against mistreatment and hostile working conditions, facing a variety of issues from both Tufts and the contracting firms. The move to outsourcing custodial labor in 1994 prompted widespread protests. In 1997, 49 janitors were laid off. In 2011, union members and students protested 62 unfilled janitor vacancies that placed a significant burden on workers.

In the spring of 2015, the threat of 35 proposed janitorial layoffs prompted a long-term, escalated campaign involving both workers and students. Joseph, one of the student organizers of the campaign, said, “We had a bunch of direct actions… there were some op-eds, there were lots of different rallies and disruptions and things and the most escalated action was a hunger strike and occupation.” 

The hunger strike garnered widespread attention in the media, including articles in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Five students stopped eating for a week and occupied the cannon area, while the Tufts administration erected large metal fences around them, supposedly for their own protection. The hunger strike ended without resolution, and there were eight janitor layoffs that summer. That fall, janitors continued to report understaffing and difficult workloads.

Janitors have also reported financial mistreatment after injury and racism from supervisors. In 2017, janitor Anita Posadas was injured while working. She was unable to pay her medical bills due to lack of health insurance and only received worker’s compensation from C&W more than six months after the injury occured. 

Further, in 2018, The Tufts Daily reported racist treatment from a C&W supervisor against janitorial supervisor Victoria Guerra, which included the use of a racial slur and ongoing racist behavior, and ended in Guerra’s firing, allegedly due to retaliation.

Winning a fair contract does not guarantee that workers’ issues are resolved. Workers often face contract violations and issues with management, which they can contest through the  process of grievance arbitration. According to Junior David Boulet-Gercourt, a TLC organizer in the dining worker subgroup, grievances are fairly common, and for dining workers, “it feels like there’s like a new grievance every 10 seconds.” 

Boulet-Gercourt pointed out that while the dining workers are unionized under an agreed-upon contract, the number of grievances “show the limits of a union contract—[it’s] great and obviously improves workers’ conditions, but Tufts Dining can kind of just ignore it.”

Contracting and Corporatization 

Student organizers in TLC believe that Tufts prioritizes profit over its workers, and that the administration’s policies towards workers reflect this. Rogoff said, “The pattern that we’ve seen is that [the] Tufts administration is really in an era of their policies that is about cutting spending where they don’t think they need it, and they continue to undervalue workers on their campus.” 

Hedvat connected this to a larger trend of universities becoming like corporations, a process known as the corporatization of higher education. Corporatization has been on the rise throughout the US since 2000. In line with this trend, Tufts has recently increased the number of middle managers by about 29 percent while reducing facilities staff. “I think a lot of universities are being pushed to operate more like corporations, where their main goal is profit, to keep investors [and] board members happy,” Hedvat said. 

Part of this corporatization is the outsourcing model. Janitors have not worked directly for Tufts since 1994, when the university switched from direct employment to a contracting model. Tufts is now increasing the number of contracted facilities workers.

Hedvat pointed out two ways the Tufts administration benefits from using contracted labor. “One, it’s cheaper, and two… contracted workers, they change a lot. It’s harder for [contracted workers] to build community and solidarity between each other, which is better for Tufts because then it’s harder for people to organize,” Hedvat said. 

Joseph said that every few years, Tufts may put out a contract bid in an attempt to find a contracting company that will operate for less money. As Physics and Astronomy Professor Gary Goldstein, who has been a supporter of the workers’ protests since the 90s, explained, “You have these different private companies trying to outbid each other for giving Tufts the best financial deal.” 

Students Stand in Solidarity

Throughout the history of janitors organizing, students have stood in solidarity with workers, from the formation of Student Labor Action Movement in 2001 and Jumbo Janitor Alliance in 2007, to TLC turning students out at the rally this past October. Colón said that the significant amount of student support has been impactful. She said, “We are very thankful to [students] for always being there to support… We didn’t need to push much more because [the administration] saw that [the protest was a reason…] to give us what we were asking for. ”

Because students pay tuition and fund the university, they hold power that workers do not. Colón said, “I know that students are the ones with power inside, because you are the ones who pay our salary.”

Hedvat spoke to TLC’s organizing model, where members make sure to first and foremost listen to workers and follow, instead of lead. “As students… the voice that we bring is being in support of what the workers are trying to do, and what the workers ask, and we never go ahead with anything without brainstorming with workers first,” Hedvat said. She continued, “We might lead something, but none of it is student-led, in my opinion. It’s student support for something that workers are trying to do.”

Looking to the Future

TLC has recently been advocating for a town hall for facilities workers, where workers would be able to express grievances directly to Executive Vice President Mike Howard, Vice President for Operations Barb Stein, and Labor Relations Manager David Ossam. Hedvat said that the administrators “denied us, multiple times, to have a town hall that they will attend.” 

Collins wrote in an email to the Observer that while the administration received the request from TLC, they “think a smaller group setting involving university officials, TLC leadership and SEIU stewards would be more appropriate, constructive, and conducive to problem-solving.” He continued, “This suggestion is rooted in our respect for the collective bargaining process.” TLC does not believe that the town hall will come to fruition, and is currently exploring other options for workers to be heard. 

Hedvat spoke about how the administration often does not seem to pay attention or care about organizing campaigns. She said, “I really hope that [workers and organizers] keep staying with it because it can be hard… administration and people in power in general, they try so hard to make it seem like you’re failing, so that you stop trying. But I’ve noticed that when they seem like they care the least—inside they’re shaking.”