Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 08:03
The Tufts Daily Jumbo Janitor Alliance (JJA) last night hosted a discussion forum with members of the Tufts janitorial staff, the union representatives and students to discuss workers’ rights and their role at the university.
Jumbo Janitor Alliance (JJA) last night organized and hosted a discussion forum with members of the Tufts janitorial staff, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representatives and students to discuss workers’ rights and what they believe to be a lack of transparency in the Tufts administration’s dealings with sub-contracted workers.
Tufts’ janitorial staff is provided by UGL Unnico instead of being hired directly by the university.
The panel included Paula Castillo, a UGL Unnico employee who works in both Bendetson Hall and West Hall, Mike Sylvester, a SEIUhigher education organizer in Boston with Local 615, CarlosAramayo (LA ’96), who works as an organizing director for hotel and restaurant unions with Unite Here, and Sergio Duenas, the SEIULocal 615 representative for Tufts janitors. The event was facilitated by Liam Walsh-Mellett, co-chair of JJA.
Most of the evening’s discussion focused on institutional response to organizing efforts and the compartmentalization of workers as members of the Tufts community.
Using Duenas as an interpreter, Castillo shared some of her experiences as a janitorial employee working under three different subcontractors — OneSource, then ABM Industries Incorporated and now UGL Unnico — since the beginning of her time at Tufts.
“I don’t know why [the sub-contractors for janitorial services] are changing so often,” she said. “I want to send a message to the students — [the janitorial staff] do the best we can.”
Castillo said she wishes the university would hire its janitors directly.
The university changed its lMedford/Somerville campus cleaning services provider last September from ABMIndustries to UGL Unnico, a shift that elicited a strong student reaction and staff response on the behalf of janitors, resulting in a protest outside of Ballou Hall in October. Protesters brought administrative attention to the responses of workers under UGL Unnico, who claimed that dozens of available positions had been vacated and not subsequently filled.
According to Castillo, following the fall 2011 shift from ABM to UGL Unnico, janitorial employees have added more responsibilities to their workloads, while their pay and positions often stay the same or decrease without forewarning.
“Right now we don’t even have cleaning supplies,” he said. “We do the work as we can … the best we can. There are many things this company doesn’t want to resolve.”
“We sometimes believe that people working for the institutions directly can get more job security, benefits and things like that. Right now, it’s mostly about respect and dignity,” Duenas said. “Right now, we’re trying to get Unnico to treat workers respectfully.”
“There are some people working 29 hours a week, and they don’t have health insurance, vacation or sick days,” Castillo said.
Duenas continued to outline the process of the switch from ABM to UGL Unnico, with employees filling out a new employment application and going through the hiring process again.
“About 60 of those workers didn’t pass the hiring process,” Duenas said.
Employees who were unable to provide necessary documentation or information, for whatever reason, were terminated, according to Duenas.
When Aramayo attended Tufts in the mid-1990s, the university did not use outside contractors for its janitorial crew.
“Contractors are an easy scapegoat for the university,” Alexa Sasanow, co-chair of JJA, said. “If the workers are employed by Tufts, no one else is to blame.”
Aramayo commented on the anti-union rhetoric often surrounding unionizing efforts at Tufts and its peer institutions in this respect, including claims about social and institutional structures in higher education.
The minute we stand up, they go insane,” he said. “Any time in any corporation when workers try to stand up and say ‘I want to be treated with more dignity,’ corporate groups go to extremes to stop it.”
“It’s true in general and especially in private higher education — they say one thing when it comes to workers in other countries, and they say something different when people are organizing on campus,” he added. “Tufts doesn’t want there to be union for janitors. They don’t want to respect the people who clean the floors. I think it’s structural. They look at the bottom line — it costs more for a union than not [having a union].”
Sasanow, a junior, explained how the students have been engaging with labor policy and action since the early 1990s, beginning with the Student Labor Action Movement, which became JJA in 2007. The community-building aspects of JJA organize soccer games with members of the labor force and bring coffee to UGL Unnico night-shift workers weekly.
“It’s important that students act as stakeholders — the university can’t work without our tuition. Students should be a part of the decision-making process,” Sasanow said.
She explained a sense of elitism and entitlement she observes on the Medford/Somerville campus with respect to the cleaning staff.
“People will puke everywhere and say ‘It’s the janitor’s job to clean it up,’” she said. “It’s disrespectful. Subcontracting distances the workers from the university through indirect employment. Because of that, they’re not seen as members of the Tufts community.”
“I’d love for the administration to interact with the people they employ indirectly,” Walsh-Mellett, a sophomore, said. “It’s important that people who are employed know who their employers are.”