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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Graduate student workers walk out during Kumar’s inauguration ceremony

For months, graduate student workers have been negotiating with the university for more substantial stipends and healthcare.

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Graduate students are pictured protesting outside University President Sunil Kumar’s inauguration on Oct. 6.

A group of Tufts graduate student workers walked out of University President Sunil Kumar’s inauguration ceremony on Oct. 6, just before the opening remarks of Peter Dolan, Board of Trustees chairman.

Following the walkout, demonstrators circled the Olin Center wearing purple shirts to represent their union, Service Employees International Union Local 509, which also represents part-time lecturers at Tufts. Holding megaphones and styrofoam signs, graduate student workers demanded higher wages, stronger health care resources and better overall appreciation from the university. Some led call and response chants such as, “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want them? Now!”

Sam Alterman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, shed light on the daily struggles graduate student workers face and what the protest means for their union’s fight.

We really felt that today it was important to send a message that we need a fair contract because that is what this institution means. When [graduate] workers are not able to pay their bills [or] when [graduate] workers are staying up until 3 a.m. trying to figure out how to pay a gas bill, that makes it really hard for them to show up and then teach a phenomenal 8:30 a.m. lab, Alterman said.

Grace Evans, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, drew attention to the lack of healthcare resources allocated to graduate student workers in the LGBTQ+ community.

We know that queer and trans rights are under attack from all corners of this country. The fact that Tufts has not met us where they need to in terms of LGBTQ healthcare is appalling. We deserve healthcare. It is a right and we’re gonna fight for it,” Evans said.

Daniel Waqar, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, spoke about the choice to protest during the inauguration of the university’s 14th president.

It’s to send a message to the incoming administration and the new president about what their priorities should be in regards to the grad workers who make the university function,” Waqar said.

Alterman added that the inauguration of Kumar as Tufts’ first president of color is a noteworthy milestone.

“We’re really thrilled to see this level of diversity at the top of the organization. It’s long overdue, but what we’re really concerned about is making sure that that diversity is also on the front lines,” Alterman said. “We know that our students benefit when they have a more diverse set of role models in the classroom and we know our institution benefits from having a more diverse set of researchers.”

Graduate student workers were joined by a myriad of people, from Tufts undergraduate students to residents of Medford and Somerville. Among the attendants was Medford City Councilor Kit Collins (LA’15). In an email to the Daily, Collins shared her thoughts and motivations for attending the protest.

I attended the protest to stand in solidarity with the graduate student workers and demonstrate that the Medford City Council backs and supports Tufts graduate student workers. We must stand together, on campus and off, to demand fair working conditions, contracts, and compensation for all Medford workers, Collins wrote. “Tufts University can certainly afford to do right by these workers and all on-campus workers, and Tufts should take this opportunity to be a leader and an example for other institutions and employers.”

Evans expressed her gratitude to Tufts’ other student workers and the overall community for their support for the protest.

I really appreciate the solidarity that we’re receiving from undergrad RAs, the custodial workers, the dining workers and all of the other workers on this campus. As you’ve heard us chanting: when we unite, we are stronger, Evans said.

Patrick Collins, executive director of public relations at Tufts University, commented on the university’s response to the protest in an email to the Daily.

President Kumar has said that it is important for students to use their voices to advocate for positions they believe in, while not using their voices to shut down conversation, Collins wrote in a statement to the Daily. “We look forward to continued negotiations with the graduate students and are hopeful that we can reach a resolution that addresses both the schools’ and the students’ needs.

Waqar shared that the next step for the union is to continue contract negotiations.

“Tufts should pay their workers fairly,” Waqar emphasized.