College Dining Workers Seize the Moment

A picture of Melanie Edwards shows her with her hair pulled back and wearing a black polo shirt, her uniform as a dining-facilities supervisor at the College of William & Mary. Zoom out from Edwards and she is surrounded by 119 other portraits of workers on a flier — the college’s recently unionized dining staff.

They range from student workers to full-time employees, from cooks to servers, some of whom, like Edwards, have been working on campus for two or three decades. Some are dressed in the college’s signature hunter green or white bib aprons; others wear black baseball caps or stout chef skull hats. Some are smiling, like Edwards. Others are pictured with a straight face. One worker faces the camera with his nose upturned and a frown.

On the flier, there’s a message in green letters: “We want our voices to be heard.”

William & Mary’s dining staff members unionized for the first time in the hopes of raising their wages, adding pensions, and making health insurance more affordable. They’re also calling for changes to ease persistent worker shortages. Edwards said the conditions she and her colleagues faced during the pandemic have made them feel disrespected by Sodexo, the dining service contracted by William & Mary since 2014.

“We’re understaffed, underpaid, overworked. It’s a lot to endure,” Edwards said. “It just feels like my work performance doesn’t match my wage.”

Detail of the top portion of a poster for the new union of dining hall workers at William & Mary University.

Unite Here Local 23

A flier promotes a new union for dining-hall workers at William & Mary.

With union drives this year also at Pitzer College and Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and fights for better contracts elsewhere, campus dining staffs across the country are seizing the opportunity in a tight hiring market to pressure colleges and contractors for better working conditions. Last week at Pomona College, dining workers went on strike to demand that the institution increase their pay. At Pomona and elsewhere, student activists are throwing support behind them.

Colleges have struggled mightily to staff their dining halls over the past two years, leading to complaints from students about subpar service and widely mocked calls for faculty members to volunteer for dining shifts. In recent months, the pinch has gotten even worse. Forty-two percent of college leaders surveyed recently by The Chronicle said hiring dining-service workers in July, August, and September was a serious problem, compared with the rest of 2022.

Higher ed has long relied on low-paid dining workers, many of whom are people of color, to help keep campuses running. But those workers have picked an advantageous moment to force their institutions to reckon with the principles many of them espouse: among them, fairness and a commitment to the social good.

When successful, such efforts could deliver drastic improvements to workers’ lives — and send a message to other colleges. As one union leader put it, “Nobody should have a poverty-level job in higher education.”

The Tipping Point

Throughout the last decade, Luis Navarro has watched two generations in his family fight for better union contracts at Northeastern University’s dining services.

Navarro’s mother, aunt, and grandmother, all employees with Northeastern dining, have been organizing since 2012, when their staff joined the Unite Here Local 26 union. He remembers going to his aunt’s house as a teenager and listening in on union meetings.

Navarro, now a 25-year-old barista at Northeastern, was brought on during a time when college dining staffs were stretched thin across the country. Suddenly, the family conversations he had overheard about poor working conditions — the burnout, the unlivable wages — became his reality.

Navarro was not only responsible for his hired role as a barista but was also asked to work as a “floater,” he said — a sort of jack-of-all-trades employee who could assist the dining staff wherever they were short-handed.

“I was being pulled back and forth,” Navarro said.

Those understaffed conditions led many employees to feel overworked and disrespected, said Carlos Aramayo, president of Unite Here Local 26. Throughout the pandemic, when a worker would call in sick or miss work, Aramayo said, managers “were not replacing or not even really making an effort, frankly, to replace those folks who had called out.”

“Folks weren’t able to take breaks to go to the bathroom,” Aramayo said. “It was really an insane situation.”

Unite Here Local 26 rally at Northeastern U.

Unite Here Local 26

Dining-hall workers rally at Northeastern U.

But even before the pandemic, the Northeastern dining workers had grown increasingly frustrated with their contractor, Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services. For many, workweeks were capped at 37.5 hours. Health insurance wasn’t affordable, and their hourly pay was nearly $10 short of what dining staff were making at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Some employees were clinging to two jobs.

“A full-time job is 40 hours a week; everybody knows that,” Aramayo said. “Not only does that mean you make less money, but a lot of folks saw that as a real respect issue and sort of nickel-and-diming.”

Navarro has taken up the fight for change in his first year on the job. For Edwards, on the other hand, change has been a long time coming.

During her 20 years at William & Mary, she has been saving up to buy her own place and move out of her parents’ home. On top of her dining job, she balances two other part-time positions.

Then in late 2020, Edwards and the rest of the William & Mary dining staff were furloughed for two months without pay. To sustain them through the holiday months, Sodexo, which employs dining workers at more than 850 colleges across the U.S. and Canada, gave each of the workers $150 toward health insurance, Edwards said.

But it wasn’t enough. She and other workers scrambled to file for unemployment. Edwards resorted to opening up credit cards, which she is now trying to pay off.

That experience was the tipping point for Edwards and her colleagues. “The pandemic really spoke volumes” to her, she said. She questioned what her employer was doing to help, and concluded “they weren’t doing anything.”

William & Mary’s dining staff first tried to unionize in 2013, and the momentum fizzled out. But this time felt different, Edwards said. Support swelled to include over 120 dining workers, with Unite Here Local 23 as their representative.

Edwards said she currently makes just above the minimum wage of $15.50. Negotiating for a pension, she said, is especially important to her and coworkers who have also dedicated years of their lives to the institution.

Edwards enjoys her work. That’s why she’s stuck it out for so long.

“I like what I do,” Edwards said, “and I also love the children. I love the students.”

But that isn’t enough for her to continue settling for low wages and no pension.

“I’ve been here 20 years,” Edwards said. “So just the thought of me walking away and leaving with nothing. It doesn’t sit well with me.”

A Fairer Contract

Although many campus workers have joined unions and renegotiated contracts this year, unionization efforts were picking up before the pandemic.

In a 2020 report on union activities in higher education, researchers found that there had been “remarkable” growth in organizing efforts among faculty and students. Between 2013 and 2019, 118 new faculty unions formed — 65 of them at private colleges, an 81.3-percent increase since 2012. Graduate students formed 16 new unions in that time period.

As more such efforts have emerged in higher education over the last decade, colleges and contractors have been forced to pay attention. And with the demand for workers still at a high, they could have the upper hand in negotiations, Scott Schneider, a Texas-based lawyer who works with colleges, said. If contractors refuse employee demands, they risk workers’ going on strike and participating in walkouts.

“At this point, given where we are in the economy, that threat of a potential strike or walkout creates more leverage,” Schneider said. “We’re sort of at that point. We’ve been at that point now for probably a couple of years.”

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, agrees that the pressure to meet employee demands is mounting. “There is certainly a much stronger pressure on wage demands and benefits that institutions and subcontract companies have to be responsive to,” Herbert said.

On October 18, Sodexo recognized William & Mary’s dining-staff union. The union is now preparing for negotiations.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson from Sodexo said: “Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, proven by the hundreds of [collective bargaining agreements] we have in good standing with unions across the country.”

A spokesperson at William & Mary referred The Chronicle to Sodexo, and said the dining staff are valued and critical to the university. “Our expectations with all our contracted vendors is that they treat their employees fairly and respectfully,” the statement read.

Many colleges contract with dining vendors for a variety of reasons: They have expertise in food services and agreements with food providers, and they help to minimize costs. This puts pressure on the contractors and workers to engage in negotiations, rather than on the university. Universities usually don’t interfere with their contractor’s management, Schneider said.

“Typically, in those contracts, the university takes the position of ‘we’re super hands-off about how you manage your employees,’” Schneider said.

Other colleges manage their own dining staffs and must negotiate with unions directly. At Pomona the union has been bargaining with the college since summer. Pomona officials released a statement in the wake of last week’s strike that said, “The union’s strike activities are designed to apply pressure on the College to agree to its demand for a one-year contract with an immediate 45-percent wage increase, which is not a realistic or sustainable path.”

Even though colleges may not hold much influence over negotiations between unions and contractors, they are often the target of student activists. Students often put pressure on their colleges to respond to unionization efforts, Schneider said. In response, the institutions can communicate a set of expectations to their contractors, he said, like stating that they expect the employees to be paid a certain wage.

This year, Northeastern workers collaborated with Local 26 on a proposed contract with five key demands. Their concerns were familiar ones: They wanted wages to increase and staffing shortages to be dealt with.

After learning about the union’s demands, Northeastern students rallied behind the workers. Many students saw the working conditions firsthand while they stood in long dining-hall lines as staff struggled to provide prompt service.

At William & Mary, a few days after workers announced their union, students organized a rally and called for action.

Student Activism

“What do we need?” a 22-year-old student shouted to a crowd of a hundred people in a video of a rally at William & Mary. “Respect!” the students, surrounded by trees and brick academic buildings, called back.

“When do we want it?” the chant leader responded, punctuating each word with her fist. “Now!” the crowd shouted.

That student was Salimata Sanfo, a senior studying government and pre-law and one of the organizers for the September rally. She said her chant echoed the complaints she had heard from dining workers, which were largely about the disrespect they felt in their jobs.

For Sanfo, who is Black, supporting the dining workers at William & Mary is personal. She is friends with many of them. While the student body is mostly white, the dining halls are run by a majority Black staff that “is being underpaid, overworked, and exploited,” Sanfo said.

This was the first rally that students at William & Mary held in support of their dining workers. But before that, students started a GoFundMe campaign in April 2020 that raised over $26,000, helping 117 dining workers. Another in late 2020, during the furloughs, raised over $23,000.

“The students did more for the employees than our employer,” Edwards said.

At Northeastern, meanwhile, a series of student-led rallies throughout 2022 helped to pressure the university.

“Northeastern doesn’t want a reputation as a university that doesn’t treat their workers well,” said Claire Wang, 21, a fourth-year computer-science and math major, and president of the Northeastern Progressive Student Alliance.

At a meeting held this year by Northeastern Mutual Aid, a club that confronts food insecurity on campus, Alex Madaras, a third-year history, culture, and law student, heard firsthand from dining workers about their experiences working at the university. She heard stories about food insecurity, expensive health care, and mental-health concerns.

“It didn’t seem right to me that there were workers who were struggling to feed their families with a full-time job on campus.” Madaras, 20, said.

Her club joined the student coalition Huskies Organizing With Labor, known as HOWL, which sought to mobilize student support for the union’s new contract. Sixty-eight campus clubs became part of the coalition. Rallies and marches drew hundreds of students, and the HOWL social media presence received thousands of likes and views.

This past June, following a student-led rally, Madaras and Navarro, the Northeastern barista, sat down for a summer cookout of grilled hot dogs and coleslaw. They were surrounded by other dining workers, student activists, and union organizers. After months of hard work, they felt like they were getting closer to securing a new contract.

Right before classes were set to start this fall, most of the dining employees were in agreement: If their demands weren’t met, 92 percent of a staff of more than 400 was prepared to go on strike.

“We’re all part of the same campus community,” Madaras said. “It’s not like students and workers are separate. We rely on each other.”

‘A Reckoning’

In September, Huskies Organizing With Labor posted an Instagram video of a Northeastern dining worker in front of cheering and clapping co-workers. After over 12 hours of negotiations that pushed to 3:30 a.m., the worker made an announcement: Northeastern’s dining union had won all five of its contract demands.

A decade ago, Northeastern dining workers were paid $9 an hour. Under their union’s recently ratified contract, they’ll be paid a minimum of $20 an hour this year. By 2026, they’ll be making at least $30 an hour.

Full-time workweeks would be extended to 40 hours. Health-care costs for workers were reduced. Pensions were raised. Finally, managers would have to guarantee that staff members who called out would be replaced. Understaffing was no longer an option.

A Northeastern University spokesperson referred The Chronicle to Chartwells. A representative wrote in a statement that the contractor, a division of Compass Group North America, was pleased to have reached an agreement with the dining workers’ Unite Here chapter that provides increased wages and benefits.

“This new contract affirms our ongoing commitment to the overall well-being of our talented team members,” the statement continued. “We are grateful for our workers and their contributions to serving the Northeastern campus.”

Aramayo, of Unite Here Local 26, said the new contract will transform these jobs, which 10 years ago were poverty-level jobs, into positions that allow workers to support their families.

“The higher-education industry should look at what we’ve accomplished here, and realize that any university could make the folks who feed the students have quality jobs that support their families,” Aramayo said.

Beludchy Pierre Louis, 33, a cook at Northeastern and a staff organizer for the union, was at the contract negotiations from 3 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. In a few years, Louis, who has spent the last year juggling his Northeastern position with another at Boston College, said he could consider cutting down to one job.

“Everybody deserves to have better health insurance, better pay, pensions, sick time, 40 hours a week,” Louis said, “the respect and dignity that we deserve.”

“A lot of other colleges are probably going to want the same things,” he said.

Across Massachusetts, other colleges’ dining staff members have been reaching out to Unite Here. Since Northeastern workers won their contract in September, Aramayo said dining workers at six other colleges — including Simmons University, Tufts University, Brandeis University, Emerson College, and the Colleges at Fenway, which includes the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences — have contacted the union.

“There is a bit of a reckoning in the hospitality industry,” Aramayo said. “There’s a reckoning about what kind of jobs are these going to be? Are these going to be jobs where people make a good living, have medical care, and work-life balance?”

“If they aren’t able to become those kinds of jobs,” Aramayo said, then people are “just not even going to apply to these places.”

After having recently won union recognition, Edwards and the rest of the William & Mary dining staff are preparing for negotiations. Wages, pensions, and understaffing will be their main matters of concern.

For Edwards, after 20 years in the job, a new contract could mean savings and pensions. She imagines moving out of her parents’ home and buying a place of her own.

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