Living Wage Campaign plans protest over reduced worker hours

Meghan Morris

Members of the Living Wage Campaign filled a Kresge classroom Monday night in an “emergency meeting” to discuss reduced hours for some dining hall workers.

Sodexo cut two and a half hours per week for some dining hall employees, LWC co-director Kellyn Lewis said. Lewis, a Weinberg senior, led the two-hour meeting about the cuts and how the group will respond, including plans to protest during Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events.

In the fall, Sodexo agreed to a contract with a $10 minimum wage and reduced or free health care for NU’s subcontracted food service workers. Now, LWC members said, the company is unnecessarily cutting hours in an act that will diminish service quality.

“They think people in this room forgot what it took to get to that place,” Lewis said. “This company is apparently awash in money, and we need to put heat on an administration that likes to sit back passively.”

Sodexo representatives did not respond to calls and emails Monday afternoon.

Dining hall workers have also organized against the cuts, circulating a petition and filing grievances against Sodexo, said Tom Breitsprecher, a lead cook in the Willard dining hall.

Breitsprecher, who has been active in the LWC since its inception and serves as chief union steward in negotiations, disputed the company’s previous claim that the cuts were seasonal. He agreed the number of students eating in the dining hall typically declines in Winter Quarter as they move off campus or join Greek organizations, but he said the company may be trying to recoup some losses from the contract negotiations.

“It’s natural for the company, as the customer base shrinks, to adjust their work schedules to reflect it,” Breitsprecher said. “Our big beef is that, especially at Willard where I work, they’re in direct violation of the contract.”

Some workers’ schedules have already been cut, and managers or other non-union employees have picked up the extra work despite contractual agreements, Breitsprecher said. Because the shifts are shorter, he also said some workers have come in early to start working off the clock under a manager’s supervision, which is not allowed under federal labor laws.

“Asking workers to rush the food just because the company wants more money is good for the bottom line, but it’s a little rough on the worker who has to rush to do it,” Breitsprecher said. “Chances are it’s going to affect the product too.”

At the Monday night meeting, students planned week-long outreach efforts in the dining halls, including distributing information about the planned cuts during lunch and dinner hours.

The group plans to organize around the official NU Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events. Members will hand out flyers before the keynote speech at noon, then likely march from the speech at Pick-Staiger to Sodexo’s campus office.

“We want to get back to the spirit of King, which is the uncompromised fight for social justice and for equality, whether it’s around wages or around civil rights,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a third-year African-American studies graduate student. “We want to reconnect with that legacy of King, not the empty celebrations while ignoring the injustice that exists right under the noses of the people who have the capacity to do something about it.”

Breitsprecher said while workers and LWC members will continue to pressure Sodexo and the University, he hopes it will soon be an issue of the past.

“Fighting over why you won’t schedule adequate hours for us to do our job just seems petty and unproductive,” he said.

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