In November, the Coalition of Colors, a coalition of different student groups of color, gathered 1200 signatures for a petition to show solidarity with Sodexo workers organizing for higher wages and better treatment.
“As far as I know, Sodexo has not really changed their position, so us as students are looking for further ways to push both Sodexo and in turn, administration can tell Sodexo what they want in terms of working conditions,” said Weinberg senior Kevin Luong, a student organizer.
According to Weinberg senior Cinthya Rodríguez, the student movement for solidarity with Sodexo workers was “organic” and started with students and workers coming together. The petition, which students spread on social media, supported measures such as guaranteeing a 40-hour work week, benefits for part-time workers, personal days and funding for job training and increased wages.
It also asked Northwestern to ensure that Sodexo workers receive better treatment and to condemn mistreatment from Sodexo supervisors and administrative disregard for the mistreatment.
“It was important for us to send a petition has a first step with current contract negotiations and also seeing an action going directly to the Sodexo HR people,” Rodríguez said. “We're watching that workers are being harassed and mistreated in different ways.”
A Sodexo worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from Sodexo has worked at Northwestern for 9.5 years and earns $12.20, the maximum wage Sodexo gives. Under the last contract, signed in 2011, all workers receive at least $10 per hour. She said the workers have not received a raise since March, and they were supposed to receive one in September, but the contract expired.
In December 2014, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance to raise the minimum wage for Chicago workers to $13 an hour by 2019. Sodexo is only offering a 20-cent raise per year over three years, according to the anonymous worker, and it argued that workers do not need the raise Chicago workers are receiving because they are in Evanston. However, many of the workers commute from Chicago and need transportation fare.
The workers are asking for a guaranteed 40 hour work week, with 8 hour shifts, as well as the possibility of overtime. She said there are staff members who would be willing to work overtime, but under Illinois law, employers must pay employees time and a half for every hour if they have already worked 40 hours that week.
For example, the worker said, instead of hiring someone to stay overtime, she and her colleagues had to run back and forth between the sink to wash dishes and do their regular job.
“When they have short staff, instead of giving us overtime, they would bring in temps so they don’t have to pay them overtime,” she said. “When they give you two people’s jobs, it’s hard, very hard to do two jobs.”
She would find a job in Chicago, but she lives nearby and has four children at home. She must go home quickly to take care of her children before her husband leaves for work.
Rachel Tilghman, Director of Communications and Engagement at Sodexo, said that while Sodexo cannot comment on the negotiations currently underway, Sodexo values all of its employees.
“Sodexo and our team at Northwestern Dining are committed to workforce development and [we] achieve this by honing the best talent, building diverse and inclusive teams and continually focusing on improving performance,” Tilghman said in an email.
Tilghman also said that Sodexo has built positive working relationships with the more than 30 labor unions that represent over 15 percent of its employees through more than 330 collective bargaining agreements.
In addition to the petition, last November, the Coalition of Colors organized an event for students to listen to Sodexo workers talk about their experiences. It also held a rally in front of Tech to show solidarity with the dining hall workers. From there, the students marched to the offices of Sodexo management in Sargent to deliver the petition.
Although Northwestern is subcontracting Sodexo, Rodríguez believes Northwestern has a responsibility to make sure the companies it subcontracts treat their workers fairly. Northwestern’s contracts with Sodexo are up for renewal in 2018.
Since her freshman year, Rodríguez has been involved in various ways to show solidarity with Northwestern workers. During her freshman year, Aramark workers were organizing for better treatment and wages, and Rodríguez was part of the student support for the workers. Aramark is another food services provider contracting with Northwestern. In the past, student actions of solidarity with workers have helped push for changes in wages and health care.
“I come from a working class background in Chicago, my dad works in a factory. That's my own story, so, for me, it's important to show solidarity with struggles workers have on campus,” Rodríguez said. “Our role is never to be speaking for the workers. Our role is always in solidarity and following their need. They're the ones who are teaching us how to keep fighting ways that manifest racism and sexism.”
“My hopes for this year is to continue to see even stronger show of support by students on this campus, to be in solidarity with workers both Sodexo and Aramark and for the university to acknowledge this role,” Rodríguez said. “These are our community members and they deserve a living wage. Especially when we're at such a rich school, there's no excuse for these negotiations to have to be so long.”