Campus food service workers may have achieved a “major victory” with a new contract Sept. 15, but they and the NU Living Wage Campaign still face unfinished business, according to LWC representatives.
LWC held a forum Thursday for food service employees and campaign members to celebrate and discuss the revamped contract, which addresses wage, health care and workplace conditions for dining hall and Norris Student Center employees.
“This is a victory we can celebrate and use as a model to fight to construct a university policy for the future,” said Senator Mary Patillo, of the NU Faculty Senate’s Social Responsibility Committee. The body passed two resolutions in May in support of the Living Wage Campaign.
The new contract guarantees a $10-per-hour wage for all workers and an 80-cent raise this year for wages already over the minimum. Wages will increase by 50 cents at the beginning of each of the following three academic years.
It also extends free health care coverage this year to employees who have already been contributing to it, promising to add coverage for non-contributing workers over the next four years. Workers can pay $85 per month to cover their entire families, LWC co-director Maggie Birkel said at the forum.
The September agreement not only provided for better wages and health benefits, but it also included provisions aimed to reduce management-employee tension, NU LWC co-director and Weinberg senior Kellyn Lewis said. It requires management to secure a warrant before asking immigrant employees for documentation, and it gives immigrant employees a day off after completing their citizenship tests.
But while the new contract steps in the desired direction for employees, there is “still a long way to go,” said Tom Breitsprecher, the chief union steward and Willard head chef, who has worked at Northwestern for more than 30 years.
Some at the forum expressed concern about the sustainability of the contract’s provisions, as it’s only a four-year agreement.
LWC “isn’t over” and will continue to organize, according to Lewis, as the campaign still wishes to push for a permanent university policy requiring a living wage.
“This will take time – the administration has a lot on their plate and a large budget to balance,” Patillo said. “But we are committed to this.”
But barriers remain. Along with resistance to the living wage itself, the university hasn’t released statistics regarding the number of food service employees on campus.
“Right now we don’t know how many workers we need to be fighting for,” Patillo said. “The faculty senate is committed to getting information like this. We can’t make change if we don’t have the facts and figures.”
The LWC campaign also has to battle time. Despite the LWC’s September victory, the campaign is fighting dwindling popular support on campus in an effort to stay relevant.
But for NU food service employees like Blake Miller – Sargent Dining Hall’s lead griller – the LWC’s determined efforts have already paid dividends.
“Without y’all,” Miller said Thursday, “we wouldn’t have a damn thing.”