In an effort to promote a living wage for all Sodexo employees at Ithaca College, students and members of the Ithaca community are joining forces for the Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity’s “Week of Action.”
LIPS, a student organization that aims to raise awareness of labor issues confronting the college, has been focusing on a campaign to ensure all college employees receive a living wage. In partnership since last fall with the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, an organization that advocates and supports workers’ issues on a local and national level, LIPS has pushed for a response from the college regarding its contract with Sodexo and the company’s treatment of Sodexo employees.
The college has made a clear distinction that its own employees are different from Sodexo workers. The college guarantees its employees $11.11 per hour, the living wage for Tompkins County, plus 50 cents. Alfred King, director of public relations for Sodexo in Gaithersburg, Md., said the lowest starting wage for Sodexo employees at the college is $8.19. Brian McAree, vice president of student affairs and campus life, said 40 out of about 120 Sodexo employees do not make a living wage.
This week, members of LIPS defined a living wage during an information session Monday, where the club handed out brochures. On Tuesday, about 20 members of the club wore blue and burgundy shirts and black pants to mimic a Sodexo employee’s uniform, put masking tape over their mouths and held a silent demonstration in IC Square in Campus Center for 45 minutes.
Sophomore Anne Carlin, a member of LIPS, said the demonstration brought student and staff participants together to stand in protest of a Sodexo policy that stipulates company employees must speak as one voice.
“There were people at the demonstration that I personally didn’t even know, yet I felt connected to them because we were all standing together to fight this issue,” she said. “That’s really what activism and social justice is all about — working together to fight for positive change.”
Sophomore Pedro Maldonado, a student dining hall worker in the Terrace dining hall, stumbled on the protest during lunch and said the act of standing in silence at Tuesday’s demonstration spoke louder than a vocal protest.
“They were causing kind of an obstruction and were in everyone’s way so you have to look at them,” he said. “You have to see what they’re doing in order to get around them. That was a really good idea. It definitely made a statement.”
Yesterday, LIPS engaged a former Sodexo worker in a discussion about her past experiences.
Carlin said the reaction to the week has been positive so far, and more students attended the group’s weekly club meeting Tuesday.
The club will hold a rally on the Academic Quad at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow before marching to The Commons at 4:00 p.m. for a rally sponsored by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center called, “Something We Can Win: Economic Justice and Sustainability.” The rally will feature several speakers from the Center, college faculty and local
Senior Kiera Lewis, organizing coordinator for LIPS, said support from the community has been instrumental in gaining new ground with the group’s campaign.
Peter Meyers, coordinator at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, said the center organized a meeting with President Tom Rochon last Friday, where community members and local government officials voiced their concerns.
Meyers said sustainability is a key component of the initiative, especially because the college promotes itself as a sustainable institution. He said the issue affects everyone in the community because they pay taxes, which go toward welfare and other state-funded programs Sodexo workers may use.
“In a society like ours, there shouldn’t be people who are working and also poor,” Meyers said. “It costs the taxpayers. If someone is making $8.19 an hour, they’re going to be able to collect social service benefits or welfare. So the taxpayers are helping to subsidize these large corporations.”
Martha Robertson, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature and 13th district legislator, said she signed a letter drafted by Meyers and the Workers’ Center, which was delivered to Rochon, stating that she supports a living wage for all Sodexo employees at the college. Robertson said Sodexo relies on taxpayers to provide sufficient health care and income because its own wages are low.
“Taxpayers are paying for that because Sodexo doesn’t pay enough for a person to support themselves and a family,” Robertson said.
McAree said the college signed a contract with Sodexo for the first time in 2000. The contractor operates the college’s three dining halls, the food court, coffee carts and all catering operations. In 2007, the company renewed its contract with the college, which is set to expire in 2017. McAree said the college has contracted dining services to an outside company for about 40 years.
“We have made a decision as an institution for a very long time that an outside contractor has the expertise that Ithaca College doesn’t have,” he said.
McAree said Sodexo employees, who receive their paychecks from the company and not the college, would change employers if the college were to adopt a different food contractor, which could impact the annual budget.
Though Robertson commends the college for maintaining a commitment to sustainability and providing a living wage for its own workers, she said the college should focus on the “triple bottom line,” a combination of environmental, fiscal and socialresponsibility.
“It’s great that Ithaca College has decided to support a living wage for all its employees,” she said. “That’s an important step, and I applaud that. It’s too bad they didn’t also look at their own contract.”
Carlin said all students should feel connected to the living wage campaign because it has the potential to affect anyone in the future.
“It’s important to fight for workers’ rights while we’re in college and have this voice so that when we go out in the workforce, we continue to fight for those rights,” she said.
Robertson said she encourages students and members of the Ithaca community to become more aware of this issue and voice their concerns with the college’s current policy.
“It’s great that the college has educated students with a social conscience,” she said. “They should reward that activity.”
Lewis said it was powerful to stand in silence with students and strangers who joined the demonstration Tuesday.
“Having us stand there together in recognition of the silence that’s been happening with this company in our dining halls speaks to the inability of people that we interact with every day to really express the underlying issues that we ignore,” she said.