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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Dining workers praise new contract, say problems remain

Dining workers across campus say they are very pleased with the benefits, rights and protections they won in their first collective bargaining agreement with Tufts, which was finally signed by university officials on June 7. Since that time, workers have filed numerous grievances against the university, saying the problems with managers and scheduling persist. 

The contract includes substantial wage increases, new healthcare options androbust provisions protecting against harassment and discrimination — the issues that sparked the workers’ movement to organize.

Lead Dining Customer Service Assistant Grazia DiFabio, who played a leading role in the contract campaign, was succinct when describing why she is pleased with the new contract.

“Life is better. I’ve got more money,” she said while swiping ID cards in Dewick MacPhie Dining Center.

The agreement, which came within days of the strike in the fall, caps off more than a year of negotiationsbetween the UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents the dining workers, and the university. Union negotiators and university officials cited economic provisions as the key sticking points last spring as both sides prepared for a strike.

When the agreement was finally reached, the wage increases and healthcare benefits were considerable.

Workers received a wage increase of $1.25 per hour upon the ratification of the agreement in April and will see raises of 95 cents an hour next summer and $1 in both 2021 and 2022.

During rallies and marches last spring, workers often spoke of annual raises of a couple cents under the old merit pay system.

As for healthcare, the contract stipulates that in January 2020, workers will be able to switch from their current Tufts Health Plan insurance offered through the university to a plan run by Local 26, which many workers say will substantially reduce their healthcare costs. That reduction comes in large part because the contract requires Tufts to pay 75% or 85% of contributions depending on which plan workers select, and these rates will increase to at least 85% and 95% by 2023.

Dahlia Rudavsky, a partner at the Newton, Mass. firm Messing, Rudavsky and Weliky, which specializes in labor law, analyzed the Tufts Dining workers’ contract for the Daily and said that she sees this kind of union health plan frequently in other contracts.

Rudavsky added that while employer contributions would have been much higher 20 years ago, the rates in the Tufts contract are “within the realm” of today’s contracts.

Paul Rudolph, a culinary production chef at the central kitchen and bakery and a union steward, estimated that his healthcare costs would be cut in half under the new plans.

“It’s only been four, five months, but for everyone it’s getting better," he said. "Things that should’ve been fixed 30 years ago are getting fixed now.”

All temporary workers who were previously employed on short-term contracts, which had to be renewed every year and offered few protections, were converted to full-time employees contingent on their work spanning six months after the contract's passage.

These provisions do come at a cost to the university and were cited by James Glaser, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, when he justified this year’s tuition increase. However, Thomas McGurty, the vice president of finance and university treasurer, told the Daily that the university has carefully planned for the extra costs and that they will not be a significant drag on the university’s budget.

Two other big areas that stood out to Rudavsky, the labor lawyer, were the portions of the contract pertaining to sexual harassment and immigration.

Rudavsky said that these provisions show that Local 26 worked to tailor the contract to the specific needs of workers in the food services industry.

“It’s obviously negotiated by people who know what they’re doing,” she said. “There are a few articles that all pertain to sensitivity, to a type of discrimination that their particular workforce may have experienced in the past.”

The contract contains a language provision, whereby workers are protected in communicating in non-English languages of their choice.It maintains that managers and the university must be sensitive in communications with employees whose primary language is not English.

Notably, the contract also includes immigration protection provisions, which ensures that the university will not take adverse actions against workers undergoing immigration or documentation proceedings. The university will meet and work with the union if problems arise in documentation status.

“The immigration provisions and the sexual harassment and the languages provisions show a level of sophistication that was brought to these negotiations that I’m happy to see,” Rudavsky said.

The contract establishes explicit sexual harassment protections for workers, including a detailed provision on required sexual harassment training, which is to occur every two years. 

Harassment by managers was the catalyst for the workers’ push to unionize in the fall of 2018. However, workers say problems remain in this area.

Melinda Smith and Zahra Warsame, two second cooks at Carmichael Dining Hall, both praised the contact but recounted their continuing problems with managers during a break on Friday afternoon.

Warsame said that managers seem to be “testing the limits” of the contract’s protections and frequently cited the Management Rights section of the contract, which establishes that any rights not addressed by the contract are retained by the university

Smith is currently in the grievance process, the formal way for employees to file complaints under the contract. The contract provides workers with more absences; however, Smith claims that managers have been questioning why she is taking so many sick days. 

“I’ve been going through some stuff, and so I’ve been calling in sick. The managers keep asking ‘Why are you calling out sick?’ and saying it’s excessive,” Smith said. “They are trying to find the little dips where they can and claiming it’s part of manager’s rights.”

Smith and Warsame said that the grievances show the strengths of the contract, not its weaknesses.

“The benefits are great. The number one is accountability,” Warsame said. “The contract is good, but it’s not perfect, and the grievance process can fix those things that come up.”

Smith recalled meeting with upper management about her grievance, something she never would have been able to do before the contract.

“I looked them in the face and said that I would not be an example,” she said. “I never felt like I had power before.”

Other workers in different dining halls told the Daily that they have filed grievances as well, but did not want to discuss them with the Daily.

Patrick Collins, Tufts' executive director of public relations, confirmed that multiple grievances have been filed against the university since the contract went into effect, but he declined to comment on the specific number or the content of the complaints.

“We're implementing the contract according to its terms, and any disagreements raised by the union have been or will be resolved according to the agreed-upon processes,” he wrote in an email to the Daily.

Some student groups have also criticized the university’s implementation of the contract.

A vague Oct. 18 Facebook post by Tufts Dining Action Coalition, the activist group that organized student support for the dining workers last year, alleged that “the Tufts administration isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.” 

The post was widely shared online and had garnered 51 student signatures by press time.

While grievances do indicate that individual workers believe their rights under the contract have been violated, they are a part of the system established by the contract, not a sign that the university is violating the agreement.