MEDFORD — Five Tufts University students began a hunger strike Sunday to protest the planned layoff of janitors on the college’s Medford campus.
The Tufts Labor Coalition, a student group organizing the demonstration, said the protest will continue until the university agrees to halt plans to cut about 35 janitorial jobs at the end of May.
Some students said the janitors’ plight is personal for them.
“It resonates with me because my mother is an assistant teacher, part of the workforce, and my father is a mechanic,” said freshman Arismer Angeles, who will be taking part in the hunger strike. “We’re a working-class family.”
The group set up a dozen green tents in a circle on a grassy area outside the main administrative building, as more than 80 students, janitors, and families of the janitorial staff gathered. The strike got underway just as Tufts begins its week of final exams, but the coalition said about 20 students would occupy the space to support those on the hunger strike.
Cutting the janitorial positions will eliminate the livelihoods of nearly one in six janitors at the university, according to the coalition.
University spokeswoman Kim Thurler said Tufts supports the rights of students to hold peaceful protests as long as they comply with university policies.
“A number of students are camping outside in support of the . . . custodians who work on Tufts’ campuses,” Thurler said in a statement. “They are free to do so as long as they do not interfere with university operations or activities. There are no restrictions on their ability to access food or come and go. We are aware that some students have informed the media of a planned hunger strike but we hope that all participants will be mindful of their health and safety.”
Thurler’s statement also said the planned janitorial cuts were part of “an institutionwide commitment to improve operational efficiencies so that Tufts’ resources can be directed to our core educational mission.”
Students and the union representing the janitors criticized the Tufts administration response to their escalating protests.
“The administration has constantly, time and time again, devalued workers and their integral contributions to this campus,” said organizer David Ferrandiz, a sophomore coalition member studying Latin American studies and colonialism.
Mica Jarmel-Schneider, another freshman at Tufts, said he, too, will join the strike.
“For me, I see this as the best way to garner mass attention,” he said. “I have the ability with my body, and as a student . . . the university has to listen to me.”
Jarmel-Schneider said the janitors are prohibited from striking due to their contracts.
“We’re doing this for them because of our relative privilege,” he said.
The hunger strike will go on indefinitely, protesters said. Some, like Angeles, have been preparing by gradually tapering off their food consumption this week.
This is another in a series of escalating protests organized by the coalition. Zoe Jeka, a coalition member who is also participating in the hunger strike, said the janitors have held weekly rallies on Tufts campus.
Jeka said she hoped the hunger strike would last “only a day or two, but who knows? They really haven’t listened to us in the past. . . . I’m really not sure how long it will take, but I’m willing to strike until I’m hospitalized.”
The Somerville and Medford city councils passed resolutions last month urging Tufts to discontinue plans for the job cuts, Jeka said.
Four Tufts students and three union activists were arrested on Thursday after blocking traffic on College Avenue in Somerville during a demonstration against cutting the janitorial jobs. The three union activists are affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors at Tufts, but they do not work as university janitors.
“We don’t believe this cut will allow for a quality, clean university for the students,” said Roxana Rivera, a district vice president at the service employees union. These workers actually live on the edge. . . . We want the university to reconsider this decision while there is still time. They think the most invisible workforce is the most dispensable, but the first thing that people see when they walk into a classroom is the garbage.”
Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.