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Sodexo, worker union reach agreement in contract negotiations

Katherine Driessen

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Subcontracted food service workers at Northwestern’s dining halls and Norris University Center food court voted Thursday to ratify a revamped contract that includes reduced and free health care and a minimum $10 wage, according to UNITE HERE Local 1 and NU Living Wage Campaign representatives.

“There is a lot of excitement, a lot of exhilaration in there,” said Rafael Marquez, who is the lead cook at 1835 Hinman dining hall. “It’s been a long time coming for all these workers fighting for this … it was something that was desperately needed.”

Workers voted by secret ballot in a closed room at Sargent dining hall, debating the merits of a contract that includes 32 changes but no immediate ‘living wage’ for the 219 workers it will affect. Some members of the LWC were also present during the three voting sessions to show support for workers, campaign chairman Kellyn Lewis said.

Representatives from the union, which helped negotiate the contract with Sodexo, the company through which the University hires its food service workers, explained the changes to workers and fielded questions at the three voting shifts. The final vote, which totaled 118-18 in favor of the new contract, was announced as students filed into the dining hall for dinner.

Some workers either abstained from voting or were not offered breaks long enough to come to Sargent and vote, Lewis said.

NU responded to the news Friday with a statement from Norris University Center director Rick Thomas, who said the University was “pleased” with the contract.

“Although Northwestern is not a party to the agreement, the University did talk with Sodexo staff about issues related to this contract negotiation,” he wrote. “The University appreciates the responsiveness of Sodexo to Northwestern’s input on these issues.”

Contract terms

Union leader Daniel Abraham said provisions in the contract that incrementally increase wages over the span of the four-year contract will eventually translate into a living wage for all workers. The final version of the contract was not yet available, and Abraham and Lewis did not provide The Daily the preliminary version.

Lewis said provisions include a guaranteed $10 hourly wage for all workers making less than that amount already, and an 80 cents raise applied to all other workers’ hourly wages. The health care benefits will significantly reduce the cost of the plan for those 120 workers already paying for it and extend a free plan to workers currently without coverage, Lewis said.

Lewis, along with a few other members of the campaign, including its former director, worked with the union on various projects this summer.

“To say this is a ‘good contract’ is an understatement,” said Abraham, who has been working on the contract since January. “But it only happened because it had support; it really took the effort of the workers and the students who have supported them all along.”

‘The best contract we could come up with’

While sporadic applause erupted from the closed room throughout the final voting session, not all workers were impressed with the contract. Tiffany Wallace, who works at the Foster Walker dining hall, abstained from voting and walked out of the meeting shaking her head.

“I’m angry,” Wallace said. “I’m not voting because it’s not going to do anything for me. They (LWC) were working for people who make the least, like dishwashers. The people making the least are going to get the biggest raise.”

She said the contract also focuses too heavily on protecting immigrant workers.

More controversial parts of the package are provisions Lewis said were included to protect immigrant workers facing charges of no-match social security numbers or being undocumented workers. Lewis said three provisions in the contract offer workers greater protection from an employer’s premature action and more time to produce proper documentation.

Lewis said there was also debate about whether money put toward health care plans should have instead been used to increase hourly wages.

“People are always going to debate this because it’s important,” Marquez said. “It’s not easy to make everyone happy, but this was the best contract we could come up with.”

Abraham and Lewis said the LWC was closely involved with consulting and supporting the workers throughout the negotiation process, which took place over six meetings between Sodexo representatives and union members working with a ‘negotiation committee’ comprised of nine workers, including Marquez.

“I just want to thank the students,” Marquez said. “This would be impossible without them.”

‘Strong ties’

Involved with the union for more than two decades, Abraham noted the presence of some LWC members during the voting process was ‘unusual’ but indicative of the ‘strong ties’ between the students and workers.

Some LWC members stood outside the closed meeting, handing workers red union lunch boxes, which were donated by an Allison Hall cook.

Lewis said the LWC prides itself on its relationships with the workers.

“You see me walking around, talking with them,” Lewis said. “They know me. We’re friends and I have personal relationships with all of them. This is about them, but I’m always here to support them, as is the campaign.”

An ‘evolving’ campaign

The LWC formed in 2009 with the specific intent to get subcontracted workers on campus a living wage, which it calculated to be $13.23. But Lewis said its goals have evolved since then to include provisions such as better benefits. During that ‘evolution,’ the LWC has employed various tactics, ranging from pointed demonstrations outside University President Morton Schapiro’s office to a public conference in April that featured noted author Barbara Ehrenreich.

“We started out specifically focused on a number, but we’ve changed our approach and now the priority is still that number but also benefits,” Lewis said. “We changed our approach since we started two years ago, and now we see them as complementing each other.”

The campaign’s relationship with Schapiro and other members of the administration has been strained at times. Schapiro, a noted labor economist, has questioned the viability of a ‘living wage,’ as calculated by the LWC. But Schapiro attended the April conference and said in a May interview with The Daily he was ‘impressed’ by the speakers and was open to trying to improve the workers’ experience on campus.

Still, Lewis said he was not convinced Schapiro was supportive of the LWC.

“Just because something is happening now does not mean he (Schapiro) has made himself more available to us,” Lewis said. “There are instances where he has flat-out refused to meet with us … this (contract) is largely due to the workers.”

As for the future of the LWC, he said it will continue to advocate for workers’ rights on campus.

Abraham said a version of the new contract should become available in the next week.

katherinedriessen2012@u.northwestern.edu

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