Tufts University Students Stage Hunger Strike

Five Tufts University students have launched a hunger strike to protest a decision to layoff more than two dozen janitors — 17 percent of the janitorial workforce — by early next month.

Dozens of students have also set up a tent occupation on the university’s quad in front of Ballou Hall and have vowed to remain there until the Tufts administration agrees to discontinue plans to make cuts.

Members of the janitorial workforce — most of whom are Hispanic — have argued that the proposed layoffs will impact their ability to provide for their families.

Tufts University (Photo Courtesy of Tufts University)Tufts University (Photo Courtesy of Tufts University)

“The cuts will affect many workers, both part time and full time. Many people will be affected, many will lose their work, and many of us will receive a heavy load of work,” said Adelaida Colon, a custodial worker on Tufts’ campus. “Right now, we are giving the university good service and we have been giving it for 18 years, but if they do the cuts it will be an absolutely different job. The students won’t feel the same and it won’t be a complete service to the university.”

Anna Gaebler, a junior at Tufts and a member of the Tufts Labor Coalition, said that faculty and community representatives at the school, located outside of Boston, have been united in a campaign against these cuts.

Last month, the Somerville and Medford city councils passed resolutions advising Tufts to suspend plans for the cuts. The Tufts Labor Coalition has also organized increasingly large-scale actions in opposition to the plan put forward by the Tufts administration. In addition, janitors have held weekly rallies on the Tufts campus.

Last week, four Tufts students and three union activists were arrested after blocking traffic during a demonstration against cutting the janitorial positions. The three union activists are connected to the Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors at Tufts.

A Tufts university spokeswoman has said that the cuts to the janitorial workforce are part of an “institution-wide commitment to improve operational efficiencies so that Tufts’ resources can be directed to our core educational mission.”

But student protestors disagree.

“Our decision to hunger strike and occupy space on campus is in solidarity with the janitors’ calls for no cuts. This culmination comes from a long history of Tufts treating workers poorly,” said first-year student Nicole Joseph, an organizer with the Tufts Labor Coalition. “We have decided to pursue this drastic action to make Tufts administrators’ priorities align with the rest of the Tufts community, given that all previous efforts from workers and students have been silenced and ignored.”

Tufts currently employs 207 janitors and has an enrollment of more than 10,000 students.

This is not the first time that college students have engaged in a hunger strike to advocate for janitors. In 2006, a group of University of Miami students were successful in helping to secure a contract for workers on campus.

For Arismer Angeles, a freshman who is on the hunger strike at Tufts, the issue is personal.

“I have ties to people in the workforce,” he said. “I come from a working-class family.”

And though his mother is concerned for his safety, “she understands that I am doing what I believe to be right.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at jwatson1@diverseeducation.com.