Union organizers and students fight for better work treatment
By Lyndsey Lyman
The national movement to put Sodexo’s bad habits to rest has only been gaining momentum in recent months, and at Ithaca College, it is no different. Students, faculty, workers and union organizers continue to work together to spread community awareness and change the college’s and Sodexo’s practices with petitions and public action.
The Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity (LIPS) is continuing its All Campus Living Wage campaign in efforts to make sure the college only makes contracts with outsourced services that protect workers’ right to organize and guarantee them a living wage and benefits equal to other college employees. Meanwhile, Service Employees International Union Local 200United continues to encourage dining hall workers to unionize in order to reach these same goals. Calvin Ott, SEIU Local 200United organizer, said becoming a union is an invaluable tool for the workers.
“Ultimately, the workers need a union contract,” Ott said. “They need to be a union so that whatever agreements that are made, whatever the college chooses to do, whatever Sodexo chooses to do, the workers have a contract so that those working conditions can’t be changed unilaterally, whether it’s Sodexo that’s doing the food service contract or some other company or Ithaca College itself.”
Media across the country have been reporting recently on campaigns against Sodexo at colleges where the company provides dining and housekeeping services. Campaign participants are enraged by Sodexo’s history of poverty-level wages, lack of affordable healthcare, dangerous working conditions and alleged discrimination.
As the movement grows, some struggle to make their voices heard while others are more successful. On Tuesday, Nov. 23, 25 protesters were arrested on criminal trespass charges at Ohio State University for their demonstration against Sodexo’s unfair wages.
Although many meetings between LIPS members and Ithaca College faculty have gone well, some of the most important ones have not. David Prunty, director of Campus Center and Events Services, told LIPS representatives he had no information to give despite the fact that the college’s vice president of Finance and Administration, Carl Sgrecci, told LIPS members that Prunty is the college’s main contact with Sodexo Supervisor Jeff Scott. In addition, the group has been unable to schedule an appointment with Scott after repeated attempts.
Ott said many workers have been continually bringing up concerns with Sodexo management as well. One example of these concerns is favoritism in the promotion process. One worker said there is a history of jobs being available but not fairly posted for all to see. This limits the number of applicants to a select few and, more often than not, ends in the promotion being given to a worker whom management knows personally or with whom they have a particular bond.
Ott said this is an obviously unfair process.
“It’s harder to get a promotion when you don’t even know that there’s a promotion being posted,” Ott said.
One dining hall worker said she tried to address the issue and, even after hearing from multiple workers who had not seen a listing for a recently offered job, was told she must have been mistaken.
“We brought it up to the manager, and he said that was posted but we just didn’t see it,” she said. “I talked to the assistant director, and she said it was there and nobody had seen it.”
Even if the job actually was posted, it obviously was not done well enough so that workers actually saw it to call it a fair opportunity. Ott said the biggest issue with Sodexo’s employee advancement is often a lack of equal opportunity.
“It’s an unfair process,” Ott said. “Sodexo supports it, and they continue it. It’s been going on for years.”
After all of these meetings and media coverage, Sodexo still has yet to speak directly with students concerned over the company’s treatment of workers. LIPS members have decided to up the ante. Senior Kiera Lewis, the organizing coordinator of LIPS, said the group’s goal is to have 2,000 signatures on their petition by their Dec. 9 meeting with college President Tom Rochon to begin their dialogue with him about improving the situation for workers on campus.
SEIU Local 200United Research/Communications Specialist August Schneeberg said the petition is a key aspect of college officials’ understanding of how important the issue is to a number of people. Besides evidence for college officials, Schneeberg said a petition with this much support would also send a message to workers.
“It shows workers they have support as well because a big part of any organizing campaign is that in the beginning, workers are reluctant to stick their necks out because, although the law protects the right to join a labor organization, the law really has no teeth,” he said. “I think the workers are very aware of that.”
Schneeberg was referring to the fact that Sodexo management is likely to fire employees who are found to be union supporters—often on fictitious grounds—and then the workers’ options for retaliation become limited. A worker could choose to fight back and sue the company, which takes years and a huge amount of money to follow through. Even if that is possible, he said, the outcome is barely worth it to many.
“Even if they did have the means to do that, all they’re entitled to is their job back and the wages that they would have earned during that period minus any wages they may have earned at another job,” Schneeberg said.
This, along with the unfair promotion practices, poverty-level wages, lack of affordable health care and Sodexo’s refusal to change on any of these issues, nationally or locally, is why Lewis said involvement from community members—from within or outside of the college—is absolutely key to the campaign.
“This campaign and the way it’s shaped really will depend on students and the greater community and how much involvement they have in putting pressure on the college to accept these recommendations,” Lewis said. “That’s an invaluable aspect of the campaign, just having people support it either by signing their name on a petition, or being part of whatever action we take, or just spreading the word about it so that people are aware.”
Lyndsey Lyman is a sophomore culture and communication major who thinks fair treatment is pretty sweet. E-mail her at email@example.com.