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These Tufts students, trying to save janitors’ jobs, didn’t eat for five days

Janitors and hunger strikers check in with each other. (Photo by Sofia Adams.)
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For five days, several students at Tufts University stopped eating, staging a hunger strike to try to prevent campus janitors from getting laid off.

By Friday afternoon, they were physically very weak, said Anna Gaebler, a junior from Chicago who is helping to organize the protests, and unable to walk without help. They stopped the strike over the weekend and turned to other tactics, such as enlisting a fifth of the senior class to pledge not to donate to Tufts if the layoffs happen in the spring.

Gaebler said they have been trying to prevent what they say will be 35 layoffs since the fall, because the workers have families to support and may have trouble finding other jobs — and because the staff is already struggling, unsuccessfully, to keep the campus clean.

Gaebler said janitors tell students they’re exhausted and sore, and students know from overflowing trash cans, toilet paper left on the floor of the bathroom and other signs that they are stretched thin.

Administration officials plan to meet with students Monday afternoon in an effort to negotiate a compromise.

A spokeswoman for Tufts, Kimberly Thurler, said school officials have been meeting daily with students from the Tufts Labor Coalition to try to reach a resolution, and have been monitoring their health, as well. She explained the administration’s plans:

“The custodial reorganization plan would redeploy cleaning resources to areas of greatest need. It would help equalize the current workload by reducing frequency of cleaning in some areas, such as staff offices, and increase the focus on areas of greater need, such as dormitories, Athletics, and Tisch Library.
“Tufts’ custodial contractor, DTZ, has committed to offering alternative employment opportunities in metro Boston for affected staff as well as providing extended transition periods and training as needed. DTZ has determined that under its collective bargaining agreement, layoffs will be based on seniority and will affect approximately 20 employees, none of whom are long-time Tufts custodians.”

Jobs are available now, she said, and, referring to the labor union, “we hope the SEIU will help resolve this matter by working with DTZ to ensure that the custodians can take advantage of these openings and be assured of continued employment.”

The changes are part of a reorganization plan that they hope will save the university $15 million annually, savings that would help stave off tuition increases, school officials explained, and the reorganization of custodial staff could save $900,000 a year.

“We’re anticipating a huge increase in uncleanliness,” Gaebler said, “and additional burden,” on those janitors who keep their jobs. Every day, janitors came during their lunch breaks to rally with the student protesters, she said.

Finals are ending, but graduation is still more than a week away, she said. They hope negotiations will end the protests soon. “If not, we’re planning to stay,” she said.