Students march in solidarity with Sodexo workers
The march, from the Arch to Tech.
Photos by Michelle Galliani / North by Northwestern

Sodexo dining workers, union officials and Northwestern students marched down Sheridan Road together to demand better working conditions for Sodexo employees Friday.

The approximately 90 protesters marched from the Arch to Tech. At first the protest was relatively quiet. Only the excited chatter of friend groups among both students and employees was heard. The protesters walked past several staring onlookers. Later, people began to chant:

"What do we want?" "Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

Friday's protest exists as another development in a long-running dispute over working conditions. The protesters are demanding 40 hours of work per week, what they call a “fair raise,” to not have supervisors and managers do employee work, and to get rid of overstaffing and what they call an “excessive” workload.

Once they reached Tech, the protesters turned onto Haven Street and continued the protests there. After a series of chants the workers met with Sodexo District Manager Erich Geiger. 

The workers said they were told they were asking for too much. Negotiations will resume Feb. 22. According to Geiger, this date is set according to union availability. After this discussion, protesters chanted, “We’ll be back.”

Sodexo and its employees have been undergoing contract negotiations since September. Worker Hugo Lemus said he was bothered by how long the negotiations were taking.

“This is six months already,” he said. “It’s a long time.”

However, Lemus said he was optimistic after speaking with Geiger.

Employee Melvin Davis was also confident the workers would get what they wanted after the discussion, but felt like the company was making excuses.

A Sodexo employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said they are protesting because they felt like employee voices are not being heard. She said that the workers are being offered a 20 cent raise, but, in exchange, Sodexo wants to eliminate health insurance benefits. She said that she continues to work at Sodexo because she loves her job and her students and said that they have her back.

She believes this protest will have a greater effect than the negotiations due to student involvement.

Tom Breitsprecher, who has been working for Sodexo at Northwestern since 1978, did not participate in the rally because he had to work, but he supports the cause.

“I encourage my co-workers who aren’t working to stand up for themselves,” Breitsprecher said in an interview before the protest. “We want to make it clear that all we’re doing is respectfully asking to be treated fairly.”

Geiger said that he was glad he had the opportunity to address the employees in this way without the presence of lawyers.

Director of Dining for Northwestern Ken Field said they are trying to solve this in a way that benefits everyone.

Geiger also added that if employees felt they were being mistreated that they could bring this up to him.

Students attended the protest in order to show support for the Sodexo employees, who they say work long hours with little pay.

“Just because you’re a food worker doesn’t mean you should be treated like a second class citizen,” Weinberg freshman Kristen Sanders said.

Sanders particularly cited an incident that made her uncomfortable in which she saw a manager yelling at an employee.

Workers organized the protest. The word of the protest spread largely through social media and word of mouth.

A representative from the union Unite Here Local 1 attended the rally but declined to comment.

This is not the first time students have fought for better conditions for employees. Six years ago, a group of students put together the Living Wage Campaign. In 2010, over 320 students rallied for higher pay and better conditions for workers at Northwestern. The organization has worked for better conditions for many workers on campus including Sodexo employees and janitors.

“If students don’t support and find an excuse not to support [the workers], they are also part of the problem,” Sanders said.


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