Beyond Sticky Note Solidarity: Building Student-Staff Relations at Tufts

Art by Mariana Porras

Editor’s Note: Joyce Fang is currently a member of Tufts Labor Coalition. 

Every semester, poster boards go up across all Tufts dining locations encouraging students to write messages of appreciation for the dining staff. From Hodgdon to Carmichael, these boards are filled with eager sticky notes thanking the staff and proclaiming students’ love and gratitude. In my experience having worked at five Tufts Dining locations, this gratitude isn’t limited to “appreciation weeks”—the majority of Tufts students are outwardly patient and make sure to enthusiastically thank the staff, albeit more so when operations are running smoothly.

However, these shows of gratitude can contrast sharply with students’ attitudes whenever they feel inconvenienced by Tufts’ services. When a shuttle runs late, the lines at Hodge are too long, or Dewick’s food isn’t up to our standards, we are very easily frustrated. It’s not uncommon for students to complain about these issues on Sidechat or to friends—it seems the only topic of conversation we all have in common are these complaints. This culture of disdain is supposed to be directed towards dining, facilities, or transportation as a “whole.” But when workers are not directly in front of them and students are caught up in their own frustration, it’s far too easy for them to disregard the people who are performing these services. 

Reflecting on the experiences of dining and facilities workers reveals how visibility impacts student-staff relationships. Dining workers are the most visible staff on our campus; students must interact with them directly whenever they swipe in at Carm, order a coffee from Kindlevan, or check out at Hodgdon. But visibility is a double-edged sword. It puts workers’ “missteps” in the spotlight, which can quickly shift students’ opinions and treatment of workers. When a worker comes off as impatient or isn’t constantly happy and kind toward students, we are far more hesitant to express thanks. The vast majority of workers are kind and patient—especially when supporting student dining workers on the job. Whenever I’ve been confused about an issue with the cash register or where exactly to grab the backup rice, there’s always been a dining worker there to help out. But if it’s a stressful workday or a dining location is understaffed, workers will not be consistently cheerful when they are interacting with student customers. And for many students that have come to expect constant enthusiasm from dining staff, these flaws are enough to make them withdraw their gratitude. Frustration toward Tufts Dining as an institution is redirected into frustration with individual staff who are seen as “rude.”

On the other end of the spectrum, for facilities staff, who work early-morning shifts and are required to move quickly throughout Tufts buildings, there is not the same level of student interaction and visibility. It’s far easier for students to demonstrate disrespect—even unintentionally—when they don’t have to see janitorial staff on a daily basis. For example, it’s almost guaranteed that the communal dorm bathrooms will be, quite frankly, disgusting by the end of a weekend, with toilet paper strewn across stalls and constantly clogged sinks. This treatment of campus spaces demonstrates how little students truly consider Tufts workers when no one is watching. Students take for granted that not only are they not responsible for cleaning up their space, they never have to interact with the workers who deal with the messes they create. Workers’ jobs are made all the more challenging, yet students remain unwilling to change their behavior.

Students’ lack of consideration compounds workers’ experiences of unfair treatment and hostility from the administration––when the administration’s shortcomings are usually the reason for students’ problems with dining, janitorial, and transportation services. Many students recognize this and actively fight against Tufts’ understaffing and managerial issues. For instance, Tufts Labor Coalition’s recent baking campaign highlighted how the dining halls’ decline in dessert quality is the direct result of understaffing and outsourcing by dining management. Many workers involved in the baking campaign take pride in being able to provide high-quality recipes for students, and they, too, are frustrated when all they are allowed to provide in the dining halls are frozen, outsourced goods. However, for students who are not closely involved in this kind of organizing, it’s harder to pinpoint the connection between not enjoying today’s cake at Dewick and Tufts’ unfair labor practices—cutting staff numbers, providing inadequate resources in the kitchen, and withholding pay from staff. When we disparage our dining halls’ food quality without recognizing this connection, workers’ struggles are lost in the midst of students’ complaints.

Students expect consistently clean dorms, quality dining, and reliable transportation—which, for the cost of tuition, room, and board here, are reasonable baseline expectations. But with the university’s efforts to cut costs through layoffs and reduction of hours, staff do not have the time or resources to meet those expectations. It’s when these expectations are not fulfilled that workers deserve respect the most; it’s a symptom of Tufts’ failure to maintain fair hiring and management practices. But, ironically, this is when students are the least willing to show gratitude.

For example, with Hodge’s upcoming temporary closure in March, students are understandably frustrated about what this means for their own access to food, but it is also a critical moment for students to keep an eye on how displaced workers are treated. Although the university has said Hodge workers will be able to work at the Dewick pop-up, it’s difficult to see how that will occur in practice. While students are worried about not being able to grab a burrito bowl between classes, Hodge’s closing is a far more significant change for full-time workers who could potentially face a reduction in working hours; the pop-up location will only be open until 10:00 p.m.on “certain days,” meaning it will differ from Hodge’s regular hours. Even if workers are guaranteed full hours, the reduction in working space at the “mini” pop-up and relocation to other dining outlets still pose challenges. We’ve yet to see the impacts of Hodge’s closing in practice, so I don’t say this to make students preemptively feel guilty for their frustration with the closing—rather, I’m urging students to be precise about who and what their frustration is directed toward. A general “Wow, this sucks!” sentiment won’t help workers and won’t create change, but showing patience and kindness toward workers while pressuring the administration to adopt fair labor practices will.

The most impactful form of “gratitude” isn’t sticky notes on poster boards. It’s student solidarity with workers when they sign petitions, show up to rallies, and support workers’ fights for fair contracts. These rallies place workers’ needs and voices at the forefront. Far from being performative actions, they are the result of years of union organizing within Tufts’ workplaces.
This semester, the dining workers’ contract is up for renegotiation, and student support—for instance, by attending the recent March 1 rally organized by TLC and the dining workers’ union—will be essential for workers’ victories. Staying up to date with action items is how we demonstrate that support; students do not need to be part of TLC to take action. As many workers have noted throughout previous contract negotiations, students have power as payers of tuition that workers do not. Our voices are not just appreciated but necessary for the university to ensure fair treatment of workers. The Tufts administration responds to public pressure, news coverage, and, most importantly, money. If we truly want to show gratitude towards workers, we need to ensure they are not alone when it comes to fighting the university for their livelihood.