Labor Trouble Déjà Vu for Tufts University

tufts laborPast coverage of Tufts University's labor troubles. Images accessed via the Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University.

Additional reporting by Emily Hopkins.

A labor dispute at Tufts University. The custodial staff on one side, battling cuts. On the other side, the administration, arguing that they’re keeping costs low, and a private company, waiting to scoop up business that used to fall under the university’s jurisdiction.

Sound familiar? It should. It happened in May, and it’s happened every time the administration has shuffled the janitors’ contract through the front office over the past two decades.

The most recent unrest came to a climax in May, when five students led a hunger strike, refusing to eat for almost a week. As the university hammered out details for a new contract with DTZ, a private company that manages custodial services, it announced that it would cut costs by deploying janitors more efficiently. Practically speaking, that would have meant layoffs for 35 janitors.

This is only the latest battle in a cyclical struggle between the administration at Tufts and the custodial staff. In 1994, the university contracted UNICCO, a company that would handle all the ins and outs of custodial work for a flat fee from the university. Previously, when Tufts directly employed its entire custodial staff, janitors received the university’s pension plan, free tuition for their children and the full list of benefits offered to a Tufts employee, according to longtime professors who have studied the issue. When the university signed off with UNICCO, janitors kept their salaries but lost these benefits that come with working for an institution of higher ed.

In 1997, Tufts began to renegotiate with UNICCO, while at the same time entering talks with ISS, another custodial service company vying for the Tufts turf. ISS levied a more competitive offer, which the university accepted. With a new acronym signing the checks, 110 janitors faced a decision: accept 25 to 30 percent salary reductions and a further loss of benefits, or walk out. Many chose to fight back.

From summer to fall of 1997, staff picketed. Professors, students and community members stood by their side. Workers who refused the job offer were locked out. Local, state and national politicians got involved. They sent letters to the administration urging better treatment for the workers. Advocates pleaded: If cuts are in fact necessary, couldn’t they be made by attrition—that is, when someone leaves the position, don’t fill it?

That November, the administration held a forum, though little came of it. The university failed to make changes. In the summer of 1998, faculty sent a survey to 49 janitors who either quit or were laid off in the 1997 buyout. Of the 18 who responded, eight were out of work, 15 were without health insurance and three had lost their homes. Thirteen reported leaning on food pantries or soup kitchens.

“The workers get squeezed. This is nothing new, it’s been going on for some time,” said Gary Goldstein. He’s a professor of physics and astronomy at Tufts, and has been at the university since 1968. He’s seen the administration get bigger, hire more middle managers, move people around. Invest more in public relations and advertising. Hire consultants.

“The university is always balancing cost against benefit and acting like a corporation, a for-profit corporation,” he said.

The privatization of campus services is not isolated to Tufts. It’s a nationwide phenomenon social scientists call “the corporatization of higher education.” While universities throughout the nation retain non-profit status, a bottom line ethic has pervaded administrations, resulting in outsourced staff positions, a reduction in tenured faculty and skyrocketing tuition prices.

“University administrators across the country have become very corporate,” said Goldstein, adding that some higher-ups come from for- profit sectors before joining higher ed. Corporate profits tend to be concentrated at the top, while corners and costs are cut at the bottom. Tufts, which is not alone in this pattern, tightens the belt of its labor costs by reducing staff members or finding a way to revoke benefits, in this case by privatization. Meanwhile, top administration members enjoy exorbitant salaries. According to a 2013 report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of college presidents taking home over $1 million salaries jumped from 36 in 2010 to 42 in 2011. That same year, total compensation for then-Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow peaked at $2,223,752.

Recently, adjunct and part-time faculty at Tufts have unionized. It gives them a way to fight back, improving their salary positions and job stability, said Paul Joseph, a sociology professor at Tufts. Adjunct faculty everywhere find it hard to get work and don’t feel they’re fairly compensated, and many do not receive university benefits, according to a study compiled by the American Association of University Professors.

The janitors’ union had the chance to roadblock the first cuts. Some feel they whiffed. According to Joseph, the local union, SEIU Local 245, was sanctioned by the national chapter for failing to protect the Tufts janitors against the woes of outsourcing. The union has been much more visible this April and May, and continues to advocate for the janitors as they try to negotiate.

“Certainly a good thing,” said Joseph. “And as for the role of the students and faculty, it’s the same as it’s ever been. Students and faculty can shame and embarrass the university and advocate for different policies.”

But what if, despite the rallies, the hunger strikes, the blocking of traffic and the angry letters, the university doesn’t listen?

Short answer: They have the time and capital to wait out the fervor of dissent.

“It is, I think, a calculated move on their part in many ways that they’re beginning to do the permanent cuts now,” said Anna Gaebler, a member of the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) who has been involved in the latest resistance. Despite continued protests, Tufts has moved forward with the cuts. They say they’ll meet with the coalition, but not until July or early August. Gaebler says that TLC is hoping to delay talks and further cuts until the end of August, when students will be back.

“The administration has been incredibly resistant,” she said. “They know that August 31, students will be back on campus. We’ll have a broader base of support then, so it is easier for them to implement these cuts over the summer when most students are gone, and the students who are here are working or have other obligations.”

Bill Shaner is a contributor to Scout Somerville. Reach him at or on Twitter: @bshaner_mdn.