By Kayla Jimenez
Just when it seemed that the union negotiations for Sodexo workers had become old news, the issue came to the forefront of campus news and attention once again. On Tuesday, March 8th, the Justice for Sodexo Workers Student Coalition organized a student rally sponsored by the College Progressives to remind the students, faculty, administration, and Sodexo management that the union negotiations are ongoing, and they are not ready to settle just yet. With a medium-sized turnout, the rally garnered the support of students, professors, and Sodexo staff and made quite the ruckus around campus, chanting phrases like “Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go!,” and “Low pay is not okay!” While this chanting, rallying, and sign bearing might not sway the opinions and actions of the administration or Sodexo decision makers, it definitely captured our attention and forced us to acknowledge that this will not come to an end without a fight.
The union, UPSEU (United Public Service Employees Union), works with various kinds of employees in the tri-state area fighting for a “living wage” and affordable benefits. They recently became the representative union for our Sodexo workers and have been negotiating with Sodexo since the transition. The main goal of the negotiations is to successfully demand that the Sodexo employees on our campus receive a “fair, living wage.” Paul Ichetta, the head of UPSEU local 1222, says they are not “looking for anything unreasonable.” Currently, the average employee earns roughly $12,000 a year, at a full-time minimum wage rate. The conflict lies in varying definitions of what a “fair wage” is: Sodexo feels that minimum wage is sufficient pay, while the union and the Sodexo employees believe otherwise. Heather, a full-time employee at the marketplace and a mother of three, works six days a week full-time to “keep her head above water.” Her husband is unable to work full-time, so she is the sole breadwinner in her home; clearly $12,000 a year is barely enough to support her family of five. It isn’t enough. She relies on welfare programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to keep herself and her family healthy and functioning.
Heather is not the only Sodexo employee here who experiences this kind of struggle. Her story is not an uncommon one. Some people may disregard the situations of these workers by believing that if they wanted to have a better quality of life, they should have worked harder, received an education, and applied for a higher-paying job, but the reality is not that simple. Heather and many others grew up in the Broome county area, often unable to leave home and attend college. There are limited job opportunities in the area. Most opportunities are in the service industry. Sodexo provided these people with a stable job opportunity, and they took it, but now, stability is not enough.
Many assume that the work done by Sodexo workers is not difficult or worthy of higher wages and disregard the conversation entirely. I work alongside these people and know how demanding a day at the Marketplace is. These employees work hard to support themselves and their families which inflicts serious mental and physical tolls on them. I support their fight for higher wages because they deserve better treatment. According to Heather, the workers are “basically treated like robots.” Sodexo is taking advantage of these people to increase their margins and their profits, and this sort of practice is unfair.
Increasing the food service workers’ wages slightly and providing them with more affordable benefits is not going to make a dent in Sodexo’s profits, which last year totaled $1 billion, nor will it affect the $35 million guaranteed to Sodexo by the university annually. UPSEU has seen similar cases before. Last year, UPSEU worked with the Sodexo workers at the University of Connecticut New Haven. After five months of nearly identical negotiations, the union and the Sodexo employees were successful in increasing wages and benefits received by workers, and they are determined to achieve the same success here.
While the rally itself might not directly result in any changes, the attention it brought to this issue can. Many students on campus are aware of the situation and want change to happen. Sodexo’s success relies on all parties involved, and as the consumers, we have more power than we think. If we do not support Sodexo’s practices, we should not continue to support them with our consumption. If you are bothered by Sodexo’s refusal to pay their employees a living wage, do not buy lunch in the Marketplace – the food isn’t that good anyways. If you dislike the way Sodexo sources its food products, do not get a meal plan next year. If you genuinely care about making a difference in regards to this issue, be an active and aware consumer. Most of us support Sodexo daily, buying buffalo chicken subs at SubConnection and the mini bearcat at Cakes and Eggs. But we can suspend our consumption, directly influencing Sodexo’s profits and success. Our dollars are our power.
Sodexo needs all of us to maintain its status as a multibillion dollar company. It needs its labor force and its consumers. We need them too. Sodexo provides many jobs for community members and students and the company provides the majority of food on campus. Heather believes “if we all band together, they will see that they need us just as much as we need them.”
As of writing, there will be another negotiation meeting on Monday, March 14th. If Sodexo continues to evade the demands of the union and the employees, they will remain in a stalemate. UPSEU and the workers will not take no for an answer, and if change (or at least an open dialogue) does not happen soon, sh*t might hit the fan.