Northwestern still hasn’t paid subcontracted dining and service workers, students and workers’ union organize in solidarity


Illustration by Isabelle Sarraf

Members of the union are asking the University and Compass to fulfill their promises and provide their workers with the economic support to be able to pay their bills.

Isabelle Sarraf, Development and Recruitment Editor

[Leer el artículo en español]

UNITE HERE Local 1 hosted a virtual rally Thursday on Facebook Live asking that the University and Compass Group “step up” and pay subcontracted workers.

The sole union representing Northwestern’s dining and service workers has spent the last month advocating for subcontracted staff that have either been laid off or unpaid in the wake of Northwestern ceasing all nonessential on-site operations.

Following a petition calling on the University to pay dining workers, Craig Johnson, senior vice president for business and finance, wrote in a March 30 email that the University will partner with Compass to provide pay and benefits to food service workers. Northwestern provides funds to Compass to cover benefits, University spokesperson Jon Yates told The Daily in an April 13 email, and Compass then facilitates maintaining coverage through June 30.

One month after Johnson’s statement, Dan Abraham, an organizer for the union, said “not one single worker has received compensation from Compass or Northwestern.”

“People can only stay at home and save lives if they have income to feed their families and pay their rent,” Abraham said.

Karen Kent, the president of UNITE HERE Local 1, echoed Abraham’s remarks and urged NU and Compass to “do the right thing.” She said dining staff at NU treat students like their own family. It’s a “great irony,” she said, that the workers who prepare food for the NU community are left hungry in their homes and cannot feed their own families.

Ana Bertha Roman, a food service worker employed through Compass and member of the UNITE HERE Local 1 Organizing Committee, said the most stressful aspect of the situation is that some of her coworkers haven’t been able to access unemployment payments. Some have applied, she said, but haven’t received answers.

An employee of Northwestern for 14 years, Roman said the University has always told and taught its employees that they were a “family.” She said the members of the union are asking the University and Compass to fulfill their promises and provide their workers with the economic support to be able to pay their bills.

“We are also psychologically stressed from not having money,” Roman, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator at the rally. “We are asking the University and the company that they have a conscience.”

SESP sophomore Viviana Lanuza said she and other members of Students Organizing for Labor Rights are fighting for service workers to be paid because they were the people on campus that made her feel welcome at NU. She said because of these workers, she has “never felt alone on campus,” and wants them to know they’re also not alone during these times.

[Read more about SOLR’s efforts to hold the University accountable]

On Wednesday, UNITE HERE Local 1 and SOLR started an online campaign with the hashtag #NUDoRight to hold administrators accountable and spread awareness of the University’s failure to pay workers. The group said as of Thursday afternoon, SOLR’s Instagram post (shown below) has reached over 3,800 users and received almost 400 comments in which community members tagged the University’s official Instagram account.

The University is covering the cost of benefits, Yates said in an April 13 email, and, when coupled with state unemployment benefits and the federal stimulus check, the total amount will “more than equal” what most Compass staff received while working. Additionally, he said the continuation of pay comes through unemployment benefits, not from Compass or Northwestern. Still, many service workers — mainly undocumented immigrants — are not eligible for them.

Valentina Espinoza, a housekeeper at the Allen Center, told The Daily she received unemployment benefits on April 8, about three weeks after her last day at work. However, she said some of her coworkers have had trouble receiving money or even applying for benefits through the University. She said the union has been helping workers fill out the applications, and that she appreciates SOLR’s help in raising money for unpaid workers.

“We’re thinking about our future,” Espinoza said. “It’s very important that the University and Compass know we have many people… that need support.”

Noah Carson-Nelson, a research analyst at UNITE HERE Local 1, told The Daily the University has not been in contact with the union in any new way within the last week, despite the growing online traction of testimonials from unpaid workers. They said it’s important at this time to show support for service workers and provide a platform for the community to gather and let the workers know they’re not alone.

Peer institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Chicago, Carson-Nelson said, have figured out how to compensate workers, so the rally adds to this pressure on the University to pay their dining and service workers.

With the University’s $10.8 billion endowment and rejection of federal funding allocated by the CARES Act on Tuesday, Carson-Nelson said it’s “pretty clear” that the University has the funds available to fulfill its promise to pay workers.

“If Northwestern doesn’t need $8.5 million, surely it can find some spare money to pay workers who make $15 an hour,” Carson-Nelson said.

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Twitter: @isabellesarraf

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