Web Update: Janitors told by NU not to rally here

Web Update: Janitors told by NU not to rally here

By Derek Hawkins and Marc Larocque

More than three-dozen Northeastern janitors were barred from participating in a rally scheduled for the library quad Wednesday on the grounds that the university does not consider them employees.

The rally, which had previously been approved by Northeastern officials, would have served to elicit student and community support for the janitors who have said they suffer from low wages, meager benefits, antiquated work equipment, daily harassment and limited safety gear.

Northeastern administrators informed the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), the group responsible for organizing the rally, that any non-students or individuals not employed directly by the university would be escorted off-campus for trespassing if they appeared at the rally.

Although janitors, PSA members and organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEUI) Local 615, received permission from the Northeastern Scheduling Office more than a week ago to hold the rally, the university retracted permission on Tuesday and ordered the group to instead hold an “educational forum” in 450 Dodge Hall.

“Northeastern’s policy on demonstrations prohibits persons who are not students, faculty or employees of Northeastern from participating in demonstrations on campus, even if invited to do so by a Northeastern student or faculty member,” Brooke Tempesta, director of campus activities and programs, said in an e-mail. An interview with The News was declined.

The janitors, most of whom said they work the overnight shift, are employed by Consolidated Services Corporation (CSC), a private company, and are members of SEIU Local 615. Northeastern contracts CSC workers through the labor union on a five-year basis.

“Right now we’re worried that the contract will expire and nothing will happen,” said Salvador Pena, a member of the night staff who has worked at Northeastern for seven years and spoke to The News through a translator. “[Northeastern and CSC] continue to fail to provide us with what we need to live. We will not stop until they recognize us as real employees and part of the NU community.”

SEIU Local 615’s current contract with the university is set to expire Aug. 31, and the proposed new contract – which is negotiated between CSC, the union and Northeastern – fails to provide adequate pay and deserved benefits, protestors said.

Flyers for the rally appeared on campus recently. One compared Harvard’s janitorial contract with that of Northeastern: The starting wage there is $18.50, while it is $12.95 here; there is a $0.50 per hour overnight compensation there, while there is no overnight compensation here; there are six to 12 sick days offered a year there (depending on seniority), while there are two sick days offered here (without consideration of seniority); and $300,000 is put toward training and safety education there, while no training or safety education is offered here.

“If you want to be in the top tier act like it!” the flyer said.

Although the on-campus rally was hindered, members of PSA set up a table on the Library Quad to distribute information while forwarding interested students and some alumni to 450 Dodge Hall.

“Are you interested in going to an educational forum that used to be a rally?” said Carolyn Bennett, a recent grad who remains a member of PSA.

“Yes, why did it get shut down?” said Stephen Weeks, a middler chemical engineering major. He said he was depressed by the rally cancellation but attributed the decision to the summer tourists. “Was the rally too radical?”

“Yes,” Bennett said.

In 450 Dodge Hall, Roxanna Riviera, organizer for SEIU Local 615, mediated discussion on which demands should be made and what is happening with other janitor movements in higher education.

“We have to do things, even if we are afraid sometimes to fight for justice,” Riviera said. “Workers at NU feel like they have worked there for many years, proudly. We have a voice.”

And after the one-hour forum, the group, with some family members, moved onto Huntington Avenue for a march that snaked down Forsyth Street and back through. They made noise with megaphones and shook bottles filled with pebbles. “Boston, Eschucha! (Listen, Boston!)” they chanted. “Estamos en la lucha! (We are in the fight!)”

Some janitors said they were concerned about losing their job for speaking out. But many students joined them and encouraged the protest participants to continue.

“It’s my responsibility as a student to help,” said Winnie Bell, a senior international affairs and American studies major. “Everybody should be held accountable because I think it’s disgusting that my tuition is used for their mistreatment. And I’m embarrassed that they sequestered us off to the upper-floor of Dodge. Through that statement, [Northeastern] is saying that they are not an integral part of NU. It’s denying their human quality, treating them like second-class citizens. Who do you think cleans the toilets and sweeps up?”

Another janitor who said he has worked for seven years, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays, is not able to visit his children in the Dominican Republic because he doesn’t have the money.

“It’s hard for me to send them money because I don’t make ends meat,” said Gustavos Betances, through an interpreter.

But Betances spoke of contract gains made in 2002. Before, he said, there were no sick days. Betances has been in the US for 14 years and formerly owned a small music business in New York before it foundered seven years later, coinciding with a diabetes diagnosis and his relocation to Northeastern.

Betances, 55, said: “I look older because of how I work, because of the physical labor and I know they are exploiting us. The owner only sees how he lives, not the workers. We hope they change their mentality.”

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