Dining workers and custodial staff keep our campus running, supporting students, educators and administrators alike. Without them, we would not be able to function as an educational institution. Amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which operations were expanded and immense uncertainty loomed over our campus, they continued to work tirelessly, risking their own health in the process. Tufts custodial and dining staff are integral members of our community and we must do more to support them.
As reported by the Daily, on Oct. 29, the union that represents Tufts janitorial staff, 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), held a rally on the Academic Quad, protesting the terms of their contract with C&W Services. The rally was attended by the Tufts Labor Coalition, staff, students and community members, who stood in solidarity with the workers.
Adelaida Colón, a janitor and union shop steward who has been working at Tufts for 25 years, explained how many workers are part-time and thus do not receive important benefits, such as health insurance, which is especially critical in the midst of a pandemic. As of 1994, Tufts University no longer directly hires its workers, instead using the facilities contractor C&W Services. The union had been attempting to negotiate with C&W for a $1 annual wage increase and more full-time positions so that more workers could receive the pay and working conditions they deserve.
Though Tufts is no longer involved in the process of hiring facilities staff, that should not absolve them of any responsibility to the people who are keeping our institution operational. Now more than ever, considering the economic and health related toll of the pandemic, Tufts should be advocating on behalf of its facilities staff and supporting its workers' demands.
Tufts made an effort to recognize the hard work of its faculty and staff, awarding Distinction Awards to dining workers who worked at Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center at the height of the pandemic during the spring of 2020. The award purportedly highlighted staff members that stood out and gave cash prizes to these workers. However, Alba Schiavone, who worked at Dewick during that period before returning to Carmichael Dining Center in the fall, explained the hollowness of the gesture. Tufts did not actually extend the award to all staff who worked at Dewick in spring of 2020. Many of Carmichael’s workers were sent to work at Dewick during lockdown, like Schiavone.
Though Tufts attempted to acknowledge the sacrifice of dining staff who put themselves and their families at risk during the height of pandemic uncertainty, they failed to properly distribute the awards to all workers who put their health on the line.
While student organizations like Tufts Labor Coalition are integral in raising awareness on crucial labor issues and advocating for Tufts staff on campus, there is still much room for increased involvement from the entire student body. More students should be present at protests, rallies and in conversations among the student body and university faculty regarding the rights of Tufts staff. As the primary beneficiaries of the labor of these employees, it is important that we all put in the effort to help advocate for their rights, safety and higher wages.
Beyond advocacy, student treatment of dining and janitorial staff on campus must improve. Throughout campus dining halls and living spaces, it is easy to spot overflowing garbage cans, scraps of food or trash left on tables or floors and common spaces left dirty and in disarray. This disrespectful behavior is not only a display of immense entitlement toward the service of others but also a lack of regard for the time and labor of those who must clean up after us.
Though students’ complaints of long wait times or the quality of food in dining halls may be valid, we must realize that this arises from the fact that workers are understaffed, overworked and often not provided with adequate resources and funding to improve these situations. More importantly, regardless of any complaints that students may have, there is no excuse for the mistreatment and disrespect of the workers who dedicate their time and energy to feeding our campus and maintaining our spaces.
Ultimately, the way in which our actions affect facilities workers on campus is just as important as our sustained advocacy on their behalf. Evidently, many students need to be more conscious and respectful of dining and custodial workers in terms of how we occupy and use spaces around campus.