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Tufts students end labor-related hunger strike

Vows to press to keep janitors’ jobs

On May 5, Tufts sophomore Jenna Sherman, left, and freshman Mica Jarmel-Schneider, gathered with a group of students in the Mayer Campus Center during their hunger strike protesting janitorial layoffs.Stephan Savoia/AP

Several Tufts students ended their hunger strike early Saturday afternoon but vowed to continue to protest the university's decision to lay off 20 janitors.

The Tufts Labor Coalition, a student group that advocated on behalf of the custodial workers, said the nearly weeklong hunger strike was ended out of concern for the students' health. One student said she broke her fast Friday night and the others fasted until Saturday afternoon.

The coalition said its negotiations with university administrators were at an impasse.

"This is a long-term fight, fighting the exploitation of workers," said Zoe Jeka, one of the strikers. "We wish we didn't have to stop, but we wish we didn't have to start in the first place."


For now, the strikers are drinking miso broth and Gatorade until they are ready for solid food, said Anna Gaebler, a spokeswoman for the activists. Protesters began packing up the tents they had erected in front of the campus's main administrative building, ending what they termed an "occupation."

Tufts said it welcomed the end of the hunger strike.

"Our students' safety has always been a priority," Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler said in an e-mail. "We will continue to work towards an appropriate and thoughtful restructuring of our custodial services."

Tufts University students packed up the camp they created for the nearly weeklong strike.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The hunger strike began last Sunday afternoon with five students participating as part of a long-running string of protests against the job cuts. Just over a week ago, several student activists and union organizers were arrested for stopping traffic during a protest over the same issue.

“This is a longterm fight, fighting the exploitation of workers,” said Zoe Jeka, a Tufts University student who participated in the hunger strike, seen above embracing a custodial worker.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Activists have met several times with administrators, including twice on Friday, and proposed measures like cutting the salaries of top-paid university employees to save the custodians' jobs. The students have asked the university to not cut any janitorial jobs until the janitors' union contract is renegotiated in July 2016. Another meeting between students and administrators is scheduled for Monday.


Jeka, who said she had to end her fast Friday night after her blood pressure dropped, said the university "didn't seem concerned" about the students' health and said community supporters gave the students medical advice. The strike strengthened the bond between protesters and the janitors, who regularly checked in on the students and praised them, she said.

"It's been an incredible amount of love and strength and support," she said. "Just because the strike has ended, we have not failed."

The janitors' union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, thanked the hunger strikers in a statement, saying they were "honored by the sacrifice and commitment demonstrated by the students."

Students opposing the layoffs said they will use other means to continue their protest, including targeting graduation-related events. They didn't specify what form the protests would take.

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.