Unbreakable at Tufts: Dining Workers Fight for a Fair Contract

Last April, over 500 Tufts community members marched from Dewick to Ballou, painted cardboard signs in hand, chanting together: The students and workers will never be defeated, the students and workers will never be defeated. Gathered on the academic quad, the crowd chanted and cheered until Tufts administrators emerged from Ballou’s front doors. A group of Tufts Dining workers and a Local 26 Union representative stood at the front of the crowd holding a banner with over 100 photographs of Tufts workers who were in favor of a union. They read a statement outlining their desire to unionize and demanded that the administration voluntarily recognize a union for Tufts Dining.


Tufts refused to recognize the union. Consequently, the dining workers submitted a petition to organize a union election to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). According to NLRB standards, at least 30 percent of a workforce must sign a petition for unionization in order to guarantee an election. Over 75 percent of Tufts Dining workers signed theirs.


The election took place on April 24; 127 workers voted in favor of unionization and 19 voted against, substantially exceeding the NLRB’s requirement of a simple majority. With the completion of the vote, the workers won their union.


Tufts Dining is now a part of UNITE HERE Local 26, a union that, according to its website, “represents workers in the hospitality industries of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.” In 2016, Local 26 fought alongside Harvard’s dining workers to unionize and complete successful contract negotiations.


Returning to campus this semester, some students are under the impression that because the workers won the union, the fight is over. However, the tangible changes that the union can guarantee are dependent on successful contract negotiations with the Tufts administration. These contract negotiations began on August 21 and are still underway. They will continue until an agreement is reached. Christine Tringale, who has worked for Tufts Dining since 2010, emphasized the importance of securing a fair contract, saying that “there is nothing on paper that says we’re safe right now, and it’s important that we negotiate on that.”


Until then, workers will continue to earn the same wages, receive (or not receive) the same health care, and face mistreatment and poor working conditions. Tringale said that at times, the work environment post-union win has felt even more hostile. “I noticed that they’re trying to push me a little more this year, now that they know that I speak up for others and myself,” she said.


Zahra Warsame, who has been a Second Cook at Carmichael since 2005, acknowledged that “there has been lot of issues, but coming into the semester, [the union] has given us a hope, a beacon. We came back looking forward to changes now that we won the union.” Ingrid LaFontant, who has worked in Carmichael since 2015, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “The only thing that I can hope for is that things can change; I’m very hopeful and very positive about it, but I haven’t seen changes yet.”


Negotiation meetings currently take place every few weeks and will likely become more frequent as the workers and the administration get closer to an agreement. So far, the group has focused on “how we actually want to be treated in the workplace,” Tringale reported.


The Tufts Dining workers are negotiating for three primary provisions in their first union contract: a living wage, affordable and comprehensive healthcare, and dignity and respect on the job.


The workers hope to secure a contract that guarantees them wages relative to the cost of living in the Medford/Somerville area—they are fighting to be able to live comfortably and close to their workplace. “I lived in campus before,” said Warsame. “I lived right by Bromfield. Now, I can’t afford to live in campus and work there… Because of my childcare and extra health insurance, I’m not able to live in campus or even near Boston. So, I hope with the new contract we can get a raise and affordable health insurance to be able to live our lives somewhat comfortable.”


As Warsame highlights, the fight for a living wage is vital in and of itself. However, it is also related to aspects of work life beyond just pay. LaFontant hopes that the new contract will bring increased stability to her schedule and, subsequently, her income. “I can’t afford to be working only two or three days [per week],” she said.


Additionally, because many divisions within Tufts Dining are understaffed, workers find themselves taking on roles beyond their job descriptions without additional pay. Tringale has often found herself working to send food to the SMFA campus, which is “a workload that I wasn’t expecting, but I’m being forced to do… [The] workload has been excessive, and it’s constantly being added on.” She has tried to discuss the issue with management, but explained that, “When I raise a solution or suggestion, I constantly get restricted, and I just never hear about it again.”


The question of sufficient and consistent scheduling is especially pertinent to temporary workers, who are only hired for one semester at a time, and therefore must go through a re-hiring process every few months. Many temporary workers in Tufts Dining have been working here for years; their presence is hardly temporary. But it is much cheaper for Tufts to employ “temps,” who are not offered benefits by the university. Warsame said that management often schedules temps for as many as 38 or 39 hours per week—just shy of the 40-hour minimum to qualify for full-time status.


The dining workers are fighting for a contract that requires management to work toward a standard practice of filling full-time, permanent positions with current temp workers. “It’s simple decency,” said Jules Yun, a former student worker in Tufts Dining and an organizer with the Tufts Dining Action Coalition (TDAC). “I know workers who have been asking managers for full-time positions for years and have not gotten the jobs… I’ve heard stories from workers of managers telling them to apply for a full-time job and then when they do apply, the managers laugh and say, ‘You were never going to get it.’”


Hiring temp workers full-time would also affect the health insurance benefits for which those workers are eligible—this is the second focus of the contract for dining workers and Local 26.


And while full-time workers do qualify for benefits, the health plan that Tufts offers is unaffordable. Warsame shared that before she had her baby, she paid between $40 and $60 per week for healthcare. “But now,” she explained, “with the baby I pay 165 per week. That’s almost $620 a month.” Warsame’s income puts her just over the threshold to be eligible for affordable health insurance like MassHealth. However, she still struggles to afford the insurance plan she currently receives from Tufts. “I make too much to get MassHealth according to the bracket… but yet I don’t make enough to even sustain a comfortable life—or any life—by myself,” she explained. “Thank God I have my husband; if I was to be with the baby alone, I just couldn’t afford to have health insurance.”


Warsame continued that healthcare is “a big, big part of our life.” Warsame’s baby is now four months old, “and every two months she gets shots. I’m talking about doctor’s visits that cost $400 to $600. So I can’t afford to not be on health insurance.”


The dining workers’ third focus in negotiations is ensuring dignity and respect in the workplace, specifically in their relationships and interactions with managers. Tringale said that “right now we’re dealing with hostile work environments, favoritism, unfairness,” as well as an overall refusal of management to address issues that the workers bring up because “they just don’t want to deal with them.”


This atmosphere of unfairness has manifested in various ways for dining workers. LaFontant, who is a temporary worker, said that she tried to apply for a job, only to find out that management had hired externally. “Somebody could have at least said to me, ‘Hey, you don’t speak enough English, you are not qualified for the job,’” said LaFontant. “They could have given me some sort of explanation—but not even being given a chance to apply for the job? I need more respect than that.”


Warsame echoed this sentiment, saying that “a lot of people are unnoticed, unappreciated. They put a lot of effort into the work they do, they take pride in the work they do, and they’re dismissed.” This dismissal is especially prevalent for temp workers who are people of color, emphasized Yun. “I know workers who have been working as temps for eight years and they’re people of color,” they explained. “You can definitely see the discriminatory hiring practices when Tufts fills full-time positions by hiring white people from outside rather than promoting temps of color.”


These dynamics create a work environment that is unjust and unsustainable for workers, and, overall, results in workers experiencing a “decreased value of [themselves],” said Tringale. Tringale has worked in Hodgdon since 2017, which means she frequently interacts with student workers. She explained that “a lot of these students see some of the mistreatment we receive, and it’s unfortunate and it’s embarrassing, because we’re over here working so hard.” Tringale emphasized her feeling that when she and her coworkers are not respected as human beings, it feels like “[we’re] almost a number, and like student [workers] are almost a number.”


Tringale began working for Tufts Dining when she was 19 years old, “fresh out of college” with an associate’s degree. “I didn’t know any of my rights, but I knew right from wrong,” she said. So, when a former Tufts Dining employee sexually harassed her, she filed a complaint with Human Relations, “only to find that they paid the employee off. It was almost like damage control. So, for two years I dealt with retaliation from this employee, and I was viewed as a problematic person just because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”


After this incident, management gave Tringale promotion after promotion, which only made her feel more controlled and watched by those who had failed to treat her with care or respect after she reported the harassment. “They were putting me up on a pedestal just so I wouldn’t speak my mind, so for a while I was afraid to the point where I just took all of the abuse.”


Tringale also recounted receiving retaliation from management following her report. Managers would frequently “mess up my schedule or take my schedule,” she said. Recently, Tringale had a baby, and that’s when she “realized that [she] needed to switch departments.” The instability of her schedule no longer affected just her, but her family as well.


Talking with union representatives from Local 26 and eventually winning the union changed things for Tringale. “I was really excited to not be afraid anymore,” she said. “Because I have a voice, and everybody else does, and I’ve never been afraid to use it. That shouldn’t have to change just because I tried to do the right thing.”


While Tringale feels that it is important for students to be informed about the struggles she and many other employees at Tufts Dining continue to face, she affirmed that she does not want student support to come from a place of pity.


“I feel like the students feel bad for us,” she said, “but I don’t want students to feel bad, because these are things that we have dealt with for a long time… Now it’s our turn to turn around the situation.” Warsame and LaFontant concurred that the situation can’t be turned around without continued support from the student body. “I understand the fight, and I know that it’s not an easy fight,” LaFontant said. “The only thing I want [students] to know is that happiness is a communal sacrifice.” So far, this sacrifice has taken many forms for students in support of the workers’ efforts to unionize and negotiate their first contract. Warsame contends that the most meaningful kind of support emerges from the relationships that students and workers build together.


“I feel like the relationships that we used to have with the students are no longer there, because under the new management, they just want us to work work work,” Warsame said. “[But] I get up and I come to work because of the students.” Whether it’s working side by side with them in dining facilities, educating peers about mistreatment in Tufts Dining and the ongoing fight for a contract, attending the rally last April, or continuing to be present at future actions, there are many ways to build and show support. Tufts Dining workers show up to care for us every single day, and it is time we show up for them, too. To students, LaFontant says: “I know you’re with us for the fight, and that’s the most important thing.”

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