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Hunger Striking Students Frustrated with Tufts University Response

MEDFORD, Mass. ― Tufts University students on a hunger strike over janitor layoffs completed their third full day without food Wednesday, expressing growing frustration at the university’s lack of response to their demands.

The Tufts Labor Coalition, a student group, wants the university to halt plans to lay off about 35 janitors in June until union contract negotiations begin next spring. The dispute has been simmering for months, with students holding rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins.

The students say they’re striking because the janitors’ contract prohibits them from going on strike.

Sophomore David Ferrandiz, supporting the hunger strikers at a tent city set up next to the university’s main administration building, said the university “has ignored everything else we’ve done.”

“This physical occupation serves as an active reminder that they can’t hide from this,” he said. “There are lives on the line. With this hunger strike, people’s bodies are being physically deteriorated with each passing hour.”

The university, located north of Boston, has said it supports the students’ right to protest but said the staff cuts will help control tuition costs and focus more resources to educational initiatives.

Protesters and administrators met Tuesday and Wednesday without reaching a resolution. University spokeswoman Kimberly Thurler said the sides plan to reconvene within the next day or so.

She said the firm the university contracts for janitorial services, DTZ, has determined the number of workers likely laid off is closer to 20 and the layoffs will be based on seniority, meaning no long-term employees will be affected. The university has about 200 DTZ janitors.

DTZ, which is based in Chicago, said it hopes to retain as many of the workers as possible and has offered to place them in jobs at its other Boston-area locations. But student protesters were unimpressed, saying that’s not a new proposal.

Five Tufts students began the hunger strike Sunday afternoon, just as final exam week began. They’ve been camping, with about 20 other students, in a dozen tents on the campus green.

Freshman hunger striker Ander Pierce said he was hungry and tired but committed to the cause.

“It’s a really supportive environment,” he said. “They’ve given us cots to sleep on, and there’s lots of water.”

Janitor Paula Castillo, who has worked at Tufts for 18 years, stopped by the hunger strike camp with dozens of co-workers during their lunch break.

“It’s really difficult to see the students in such physical discomfort,” she said. “It makes me sick to my stomach. If we could, we’d join them.”

Castillo, who’s 68 and lives in Chelsea, said she’ll likely be spared this round of layoffs. But the reductions, she said, will make her job more difficult and increase the likelihood she’ll be let go later.

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