Tufts dining hall staff march for higher wages, better working conditions

Tufts dining hall workers marched with students to Ballou Hall, Tufts University’s central administrative building on Nov. 16, demanding fair living wages, better healthcare, an end to workplace harassment, and a number of other demands. 

Zahra Warsome, a 31-year-old dining hall employee who has worked for Tufts since she was 18-years-old, said she and her family cannot get by on minimum wage, as it stays the same while the cost of everything continues to rise year after year.

“Food is going up, rent is going up, everything is going up except our wages,” Warsome said.

The constantly increasing cost of living makes it hard for workers like Warsome to afford vital things such as insurance. “Me and my daughter pay $620 a month for our insurance. [It costs] $155 dollars a week for the two of us,” Warsome said.

In an effort to stay a step ahead of Boston’s wave of gentrification, Warome moved to Lawrence because she could no longer afford to live in Somerville. This has increased her commute time to two hours, and she has to make the trip even in dangerous conditions because she’s an essential worker.

“I can get into accidents. Storms can jeopardize me driving. But students have to eat,” she said.

In April, Tufts Dining workers joined UNITE HERE Local 26, a union representing thousands of workers including those who have organized strikes against Marriott Hotel, to negotiate better contract terms. The workers voted to unionize, in a count of 127 to 19, through an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The union had seven meetings with the administration since earning approval, but workers feel as if no meaningful progress have been made. Katrina Barry, a Dining Services Attendant (DSA) at Carmichael Dining Hall who worked at Tufts since 2013, voices her frustration.  

“It doesn’t cost the university anything and they aren’t willing to give even that,” Barry said. “Healthcare, living wage…we’re arguing over ridiculous words at this point. We often leave bargaining sessions feeling disrespected.”

Workers say that they feel disrespected not only in bargaining sessions but also in the workplace. Throughout speeches, workers described their experiences of being harassed by managers and witnessing favoritism.

“It’s not a good place to work, a lot of times,” Barry said.

Christine Tringale, who is 27-years-old and has worked for Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run for eight years, filed a complaint against human resources about harassment only to find that she was offered a promotion every year. “I know I can do the work, but this doesn’t seem right.”

According to Tringale, her manager made promises to train her, but she soon realized that the trainings were constantly delayed. “I was like getting bribed,” she said. “When I would ask them they would say ‘hold on we’ll get you there,’ but I would get restricted.”   

The Tufts Daily reports that Tringale had allegedly experienced “sexual harassment, scheduling difficulties, and increased hostility” by her manager, but was sent home after being told by the HR department that “[she] was being violent.”

Michael Krauss, a freshman student who works at Hodgdon, claims to have seen harassment close hand. “Workers are yelled at for making too much food,” Krauss said. “Christine is the head cook at Hodge, she’s happy to be at work and always supports me. My impression of the managing staff is that they all seem to care about is profit seeking.”

Amid such circumstances, dining hall employees feel as if they aren’t fairly compensated for the work they do. “There’s one woman in my unit who has worked here for 20 years, and it’s only now Tufts decided to bump her up to $15 per hour. I think that’s insulting,” said Katrina Barry, Dining Services Attendant. “We work very hard. We work long hours. We just wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. We’re not asking too much.”

The rally gathered in front of Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center. They marched on to Ballou Hall, where workers voiced their demands to a university representative and shared their stories of harassment and workplace hardships. At the end of protest, the rally returned to Dewick, where workers and students thanked each other and spent time together.

Gabriel Reyes, 18, noted that it’s not only the university’s responsibility as a privileged actor but also student’s responsibility to ensure that workers’ rights are ensured.

“People before profits is what this government and [university] administration doesn’t do,” Reyes said. “[Students] must help make sure that workers get their pay.”

In response to the rally, Patrick Collins, Executive Director of Public Relations, commented in a email that “the university and the union began in-person negotiations in August and have initially focused on a number of important issues such as training, safety, job postings and work assignments. We continue to make progress and appreciate the engagement of all parties at the bargaining table. Negotiations for a first contract involving a new bargaining unit such as the dining services employees’ union often take a good deal of time. We are hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement as soon as possible.”

Student Michael Krauss simply noted that “we pay a lot of money to be here, and the dining workers spend all their time here. They deserve to be treated equally.”

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