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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

A year defined by Tufts Dining workers' contract campaign

Dining workers are pictured protesting on March 5.

A year after voting to unionize, Tufts Dining workers ratified a collective bargaining agreement with the university on April 3. The Daily looks back at a year of organizing, negotiations and contention.

In the spring of 2018, tensions between dining workers and managers reached a breaking point. Christine Tringale, a night cook supervisor at Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run, told the Daily of her frustration at the time.

“The managers do not have our back. They constantly hide our complaints, they choose favoritism … and basically, the harassment. They constantly try and push your buttons,” Tringale said. “It’s not right. It’s been going on too long. There’s people who’ve been there for over 20 years and they’ve seen some horrible things. We just want fairness.”

Dining workers began organizing with UNITE HERE Local 26, a Boston-based union representing hospitality workers in hotels, restaurants and university dining halls across southern New England.

Soon, 75% of the workers had pledged to support unionization and were ready to take their demands to the university.

Dining workers and students numbering in the hundreds massed outside Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center on the afternoon of April 4 and marched up the hill to Ballou Hall, toting signs and chanting.

The demonstration included Michael Kramer, no stranger to organizing campus dining workers. In the fall of 2016, he led Harvard University Dining workers on strike when contract negotiations stalled, according to the Harvard Crimson. He would later negotiate a contract with Northeastern University dining workers, narrowly avoiding a strike, according to the UNITE HERE website.

When the marchers arrived at Ballou Hall, they stood outside the building while student activists and workers rallied the crowd with a megaphone.

Meanwhile, Kramer demanded to speak to University President Anthony Monaco. Several minutes later. Kramer reemerged with then-Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Senior Vice President for University Relations and General Counsel Mary Jeka, as Monaco was not in his office at the time.

Kramer and Lucson Aime, a first cook at Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center, presented the two administrators with a petition and asked that the university voluntarily recognize the workers’ union and put a stop to harassment by managers.

Campbell told the crowd of demonstrators that the she would be in contact with the union and would speak to anyone who was harassing workers.

A unionization vote was set for April 24. At just past 5:00 p.m. that day, a National Labor Relations Board representative announced the vote: 127 in favor and 19 against. It was official; the workers had their union.

As students arrived back on campus in late August, the union and the university began contract negotiations, most of which took place at 200 Boston Ave., where Tufts Human Resources (HR) office is located.

During the negotiations, Tufts Dining Action Coalition (TDAC), which was formed to campaign for Dining workers, organized student support on campus. In October, Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate passed a resolution urging the university administration to conclude a contract favorable to the dining workers, 24 to one.

However, the Dining workers were still alleging mistreatment by managers, the issue that had motivated the movement. Tringale said she was verbally harassed by one of the managers at Hodgdon for the comments in an Observer article.

A group of students from TDAC and workers accompanied Tringale to Tufts HR where they confronted administration officials about harassment. Eventually, Tringale met with Vice President for HR Julien Carter to discuss the issue. On Nov. 2, students and workers rallied at Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run to support Tringale.

Two weeks later, the union held another rally outside Ballou Hall, marching the same route they had in the spring. In front of a crowd of some 200 students, speakers drawn from the workers, TDAC and Tufts staff attacked the university’s policies and called for Tufts to sign a contract with the workers.

Trisha O’Brien, a dining services attendant at Kindlevan Café who was part of the union’s bargaining campaign, told the Daily at the time that this marked a change from the spring rally and that workers were feeling emboldened.

“A lot of the staff were scared last time,” O’Brien said. “They were afraid to speak.”

After the winter break, however, workers said that negotiations hit a snag. At a meeting on Jan. 17, members of the bargaining committee, like O’Brien, told students that the university was refusing to accept their demands.

In late January, Kramer sat down with the Daily as the negotiations hit the six-month mark. He claimed that the university’s negotiating team was rejecting the union’s economic proposals on three key issues: wages, healthcare and the use of temporary contracts.

“I think that [is] the thing that signaled to our committee … that they aren’t yet taking this as seriously as the dining hall workers are,” Kramer said. “The university needs to do something quickly to respond, and respond in a way that they’re making some real movement toward what people are demanding.”

The union wanted a collectively bargained wage raise instead of the merit raises done on a case-by-case basis, cheaper healthcare that offered more coverage and the transition of workers on temporary contracts to full-time work. These were the issues that had moved to the center stage in a movement that had begun with workers calling for better treatment by managers.

The university insisted throughout the negotiations that it was negotiating in good faith and that progress was being made.

Patrick Collins, Tufts' executive director of public relations, told the Daily in a January email that by that time, the two sides had already agreed to “significant" job protections and a grievance process while the university had offered a pay raise to workers and transition many temporary workers to full-time employment.

As the talks continued into February, TDAC stepped up its activity, organizing a letter delivery campaign to President Monaco, stopping campus tours to tell them about the negotiations and posting banners around the university with messages supportive of the workers written on them.

Support for the workers also came from Tufts’ host communities with the Somerville City Council, and the mayors of both Somerville and Medford endorsed the campaign.

In perhaps the most dramatic event of the campaign, on March 5, more than 800 students, faculty, staff and community members formed a picket line circling the Residential Quad in front of Carmichael Hall.

“The next stage of this campaign begins over this next week,” Brian Lang, UNITE HERE Local 26's president, said. “Dining workers are going to begin a discussion amongst themselves about whether or not it makes sense to take the ultimate action, and that’s a strike.”

A vote to strike was set for March 14. The crowd cheered before marching to Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center led by Lang and a group of workers, holding a banner showing more than 100 Tufts Dining workers under the headline “Tufts Dining: Ready to Strike!”

When that day came, workers voted 137 to 17 to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike at any time.

When students returned from spring break, a strike seemed imminent. On the same day as the strike vote, the university had sent out an email outlining its preparations for such an eventuality; at a meeting held by TDAC and UNITE HERE Local 26 on March 26, Kramer was blunt about the looming possibility of a strike.

“Make no mistake, if there is not serious action taken by the Tufts administration within a very short time period, there will be a strike on this campus. That strike will be soon,” Kramer said. “If [the administrators] want to avoid a crisis on this campus, the time to act is right now.”

Dining workers like O’Brien were nervous but defiant.

“It’s going to be tough for all of us if it comes to that. We’re hoping that it doesn’t, but we’re ready,” she said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do, and whatever sacrifices we have to make … we’ll stand united. We’re going to win.”

By that Friday, campus still waited for the announcement of a strike. Instead, that morning, the Tufts community received a word via a joint email sent out by Monaco and the union that a tentative agreement had been reached.

Dining workers would get raises and the option of more affordable healthcare, and many workers on temporary contracts would transition to full-time employment. The workers were elated, especially temporary workers like Tina Lavanga, who works at Hotung Café.

“It’s wonderful. Our paycheck is going to be more, we’re going to be eligible for benefits that we weren’t before. Everything that a regular worker gets, we get … it’s amazing. After working [at Tufts] for 11 years, I get this,” she told the Daily hours after the announcement.

Six days later and roughly a year after their initial vote to unionize, Tufts Dining workers ratified the contract in a unanimous vote.