Obstacles for Sodexo employees even after wage success
In the spring of 2011, the Ithaca community rejoiced at the living wage victory for Ithaca College’s Sodexo-employed dining services workers. Beginning in 2010, a workers rights group on campus, Labor Initiative Promoting Solidarity, had partnered with campus workers, the Tompkins County Worker’s Center and various community activists and public officials to pressure both Sodexo and the Ithaca College administration, to pay their workers a living wage. After tirelessly meeting, marching, advocating and making their voices heard, they had won the battle.
As a member of LIPS and an active participant of that campaign, I was thrilled with this success. I couldn’t believe we had accomplished what we set out to do. It was a true victory for the underdog; David beating Goliath; proof that the people really do have power.
During the campaign, my main role was to touch base with campus workers. LIPS never wanted the campaign to stray from the folks it was actually affecting. Through this process, I became very friendly with a worker named Erica*.
When the campaign was over, I made a conscious effort to keep in touch with her. Despite the momentous nature of our victory, LIPS members and I knew that the battle for fair labor standards was far from over. Unfortunately, what I began to hear was far worse than I had expected.
The living wage raises officially took effect in January of 2012. Workers who had only been making a minimum wage were elevated to a living wage, resulting in some raises equaling over 35 percent. Yet these were employees who had been working at Sodexo for only three to four years. In contrast, those who had been there for 15 to 20 years only received a 25 cent increase. This unfair discrepancy was unfortunate, but seemed fairly tolerable in light of the victory, until Erica and other workers began to inform me about what else was going on.
“We might get more money, but they’ve cut people’s hours to accommodate it,” said Hillary*, one of Erica’s fellow workers. She was referring to changes that have taken place since the living wage was implemented.
“Instead of working eight and a half hour days, they’re down to seven and a half hour days. They’ve lost an hour a day, and five hours per week. That’s 35 hours instead of 40,” she said. These numbers may seem inconclusive on their own, but when you do the math, the result is quite astounding.
“I know a lady who makes less now, with the livable wage, then she did before the livable wage, when she was at 40 hours a week,” Hillary said. This seems hard to believe, but if you calculate a few typical long-term employee salaries with an increase of 25 cents, and then factor in a five-hour cut per week, the loss in weekly salary can range anywhere from $250 to $280 lost per month, assuming the cut is a direct result of the wage raises.
“When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you need that money,” remarked Julie*, a worker who now makes less after the living wage raises.
I acknowledge that this is largely speculation, but if you take into account other changes that have appeared since January there are one too many instances to write off as coincidence. For example, there has been an alleged large-scale elimination of positions, resulting in an environment of “do more, in less time, with less help,” Hillary said. “It’s affected everyone, regardless of whether they’re at 40 hours or not.”
She described more changes, stories of shaving off overtime hours, cuts in health insurance, and reducing student help in half — all of the working standards LIPS stands for, violated right under our noses, arguably as a result of our own initiative.”
I can’t help but feel some personal responsibility. It seems like the only thing I can do is shed light on what’s been happening and remind people that highly publicized, flashy victories are dangerous. They shield the fact that long-standing issues of corporatization and labor abuse require lifelong struggles and generations of individuals who are committed to systematic change. I don’t want to completely dismiss what LIPS and community members accomplished, but I do want the repercussions of our living wage campaign to serve as a lesson for fellow social justice advocates who dare to journey on the never-ending uphill battle we call progress.
*names have been changed for anonymity
Lillie Fleshler is a senior cinema and photography major who will keep fighting in the name of progress. Email her at lfleshl1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.