Hunger strikers oppose layoffs of Tufts janitors

At least four students stopped eating, only drinking water, while others fasted during the day to oppose the layoffs
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 23, 2015

A small group of Tufts University students mounted a six-day hunger strike in May, but their target wasn’t fossil fuel divestment or nuclear disarmament. The Tufts Labor Coalition had pitched tents in front of the suburban Boston school’s administration building to protest the planned layoff of campus custodial workers.

While such staff cuts might not seem to be a typical student cause, the janitors’ plight illuminates issues of race and income equality, says David Ferrandiz, a Tufts sophomore and an organizer of the hunger strike.

“Many of the janitors are men and women of color—immigrant people of color—and they are already marginalized in the community,” Ferrandiz says. “To see how Tufts treats them as disposable highlights a need to say we will not accept this injustice.”

At least four students stopped eating, only drinking water, while others fasted during the day to oppose the layoffs. The hunger strike and occupation ended May 9 without any changes to the university’s plans, though a meeting between protesters and the administration had been scheduled.

The exact number of cuts appears to be in dispute. The students say 35 janitors (17 percent of the custodial workforce) will lose their job. But a university statement said the exact number of cuts would ultimately be determined by the union that represents the workers. The statement also said students were free to camp on the quad as long as they didn’t interfere with university operations. “Tufts University respects and supports the rights of our community to hold peaceful demonstrations to express their ideas and opinions,” it read.

Money saved from the cuts—$900,000—will be directed toward the university’s “core academic mission,” including controlling tuition and financial aid. The layoffs are part of a wider streamlining plan meant to save the university $15 million annually.

The students suggest that reducing administrators’ salaries and eliminating lavish special events—such as the recent dedication of a ceremonial statue—would be better ways to cut costs.

Janitors are more than just a cleaning crew, Ferrandiz says, adding that they can provide an extra layer of security by keeping a watch out for uninvited guests. And since they see students every day, janitors can also spot students who may be depressed, lacking food or otherwise struggling.

Ferrandiz says, “There are better areas to cut that will not destroy the livelihoods of 35 people and their families and result in a dirtier campus.”