Ithaca College dining services employees are joining others across the country to fight for improved working conditions, better pay and benefits and the right to unionize without intimidation from their employer Sodexo.
The Service Employees International Union started Clean Up Sodexo, a campaign to unite Sodexo workers, university students and communities across the country and expose them to the company’s labor practices. Local 200 of SEIU has begun working with Sodexo employees at the college to join this campaign.
The French international food service and facilities management company employs about 380,000 people in 80 countries around the world. The college contracts the company to handle all of its residential, retail and catering food services on campus.
President Tom Rochon said the company first signed with the college in September 2000, and in February 2007 an amended contract was signed for the next 10 years.
The contract costs the college about $9.6 million annually, Carl Sgrecci, vice president of finance and administration, said. More than $3.6 million of this contract is used for employee compensation.
Since the recent national campaign started, SEIU has recruited members across the country, started petitions and staged rallies and protests, including at the company’s headquarters in France. Among the campaign’s claims is that Sodexo creates a “cycle of poverty” through low wages, doesn’t give access to affordable health care and has a history of mistreatment of minority employees and sexual harassment.
Alfred King, director of public relations at Sodexo in Gaithersburg, Md., said Sodexo offers competitive wages and benefits, and Clean Up Sodexo’s allegations are false.
“If anyone looked at our wages in a location, they’d find that they were very competitive with jobs with similar responsibilities and skill levels,” he said.
King said no Sodexo employee salary starts at less than $8.19 an hour, and about two-thirds of Sodexo’s employees make or exceed $11.11 an hour, Tompkins County’s living wage with benefits.
Calvin Ott, an organizer at Local 200 of SEIU in Rochester, N.Y., and former Sodexo employee, said Local 200 reached out to Sodexo employees at the college to join the campaign.
He said the main goals of the campaign, both at the college and nationwide, are to negotiate with Sodexo for a living wage, better working conditions and ultimately the ability of workers to unionize without coercion or intimidation.
“The only way for the workers to get the union that they deserve and the contract that they deserve is to work collectively on this campaign with other unions and other workers,” he said.
King said Sodexo does not interfere with its employees’ right to form a union through secret ballot elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. He said 15 percent of Sodexo’s workforce is unionized, compared to about 7 percent of private sector companies nationwide.
Though the company supports its employees’ right to form unions, the company has the right to present employees with alternatives to unionizing, King said.
Brian McAree, vice president of student affairs and campus life, said the college has contracted its dining services for more than 30 years.
He said the administration has not found evidence of SEIU and Clean Up Sodexo’s allegations that Sodexo has violated Labor Relations Board rules or used intimidation when employees have tried to organize at the college.
Rochon said Sodexo employees are different from college employees.
“We don’t have a relationship with the Sodexo employees per say, other than they provide the services for Sodexo to us on the campus,” he said.
McAree said Sodexo has consistently received good marks from students, been responsive to student, faculty and staff needs and has brought new ideas to campus dining — making it a “fabulous food service provider” at the college.
Sodexo employees at the college agreed to talk to The Ithacan about their concerns on the condition that their names were withheld.
One Sodexo employee said employees’ main goal in participating in the campaign is to get a living wage for all employees and to unionize. She said having a union would help fix some of the problems she sees in the workplace — low wages, inconsistency and a lack of communication.
Another Sodexo employee said she has been victim of verbal abuse by a manager, but her supervisors did not address it.
She said though she makes more than a living wage, she has not felt like she has been compensated fairly for her extra work. She said she is often left alone to do the jobs of others.
“Everybody’s gone, and I’m still cleaning,” she said. “They say this is a team unit. There’s no team. It’s me, myself and I.”
Students have also joined the Clean Up Sodexo campaign and are planning initiatives to show their support for Sodexo employees.
Junior Kiera Lewis, organizing coordinator of the Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity, a new campus organization that aims to initiate change on labor and social justice issues, said the group is working with Sodexo workers to spread awareness of worker treatment.
“What we’re doing in terms of supporting the workers is really just making this issue known to the Ithaca College population and the community and trying to gather people in support,” she said.
Lewis said the group is planning to draft a code of conduct to present to the administration on behalf of Sodexo employees that would guarantee them a living wage and health benefits comparable to other college employees.
Rochon said he welcomes students’ concerns but said he could not negotiate with them about Sodexo employees’ working conditions.
“Neither Ithaca College nor they are empowered to set those conditions,” he said. “However, I would be happy to hear them out.”
Ott said it is important that students rally behind this issue.
“Injustices are happening right on campus,” he said. “What a great place to start.”