Food Workers, Students, Professors and Priests: Bringing Food Justice to the Dining Hall

In our article last week, “The Food Movement in Flux: When a Good Idea is No Longer Enough,” we highlighted how grassroots organizing is necessary for the food movement to continue to change the corporate food system.  As a follow-up, we take a look at our own union’s efforts organizing food workers and community allies on college campuses.

For 23 years, Felipa was a cook in the dining hall at Pomona College, a school in Southern California that runs its own food services and prides itself in sustainability.

Felipa tried to organize a union to improve conditions on the job.  Then, despite her long tenure, Pomona fired her for alleged incongruence in her immigration paperwork.

Meanwhile, Tarshea worked in the dining hall at Georgetown University, an institution that outsources its food services to one of the largest food corporations in the world.  Tarshea also lead a union organizing effort, and she is now a proud member of UNITE HERE.

Felipa and Tarshea are among worker leaders standing up from coast to coast to improve the grim reality of jobs in campus food service in the United States, where the annual median wage in 2010 was $17,176, substantially below the federal poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four.

In the process, these workers and their campus communities are demonstrating how to win campaigns against one of the most corporate parts of the American university.  Indeed, twisting the standard anti-corporate script, the big business of university food is providing a tremendous opportunity for change that could go well beyond campus.

Student Center: Profit Center

Everyday at colleges and universities across the country, students buy breakfast, lunch and dinner in their student centers and cafeterias.  It doesn’t matter whether they ever step foot in the “all-you-care-to-eat” buffet line – often they’ve been required to buy the meals in advance, simply as a prerequisite for living at their new home away from home.

The money piles up fast.   Generating around $20 billion in revenues per year in the United States, the campus food service industry pulls in more money here than Taco Bell, Burger King and Applebee’s combined.

Over the years, many colleges and universities have decided they don’t want to deal with the hassle of operating the food service themselves, and as in other institutions like stadiums, convention centers and museums, large food service companies have swept in to profit from the opportunity.

All told, about 67% of the campus food service market in the United States is currently outsourced to a private company.  Within that, three major multinational food service corporations carry the lion’s share of the weight: Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo.

How consolidated has the industry become? Consider that of companies on Food Management’s Top 50 food service companies list — for which colleges and universities is a prominent business segment — this food service “Big 3” combines for 92% of the total revenue.

Indeed, each of the Big 3 is a global food behemoth in its own right.  U.K.-based Compass Group (which owns familiar brands such as Chartwell’s, Bon Appetit and Levy Restaurants) pulls in about $24 billion revenue per year globally, with France-based competitor Sodexo making about $19 billion.  Philadelphia-based Aramark lags around a hearty $13 billion per year.

So, to fight corporations in campus food service is to, somewhat literally, fight in the belly of the beast.

And we’re making progress.

Power through Community

In the past two academic years, campus dining workers have aggressively organized with UNITE HERE to win union recognition and respect on the job.  So far, they’ve won at Loyola University Chicago, Georgetown University, Stevenson (MD), St. Peter’s (NJ), Carleton University (Canada), Dominican University, University of New Mexico, Loyola Marymount University, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, California Lutheran, Harvard Law, Chicago State University and Northeastern University.

All of those shops are operated by one of the Big 3.

In each location, a strong committee of worker leaders trained as organizers to anchor the campaigns.  They did house visits to their coworkers.  They had extremely hard conversations.  And they got super-majorities of their peers to take the scary step of standing up to their boss.  No one of these campaigns would have been won without the dedication of these worker committees, and the commitment on the part of union organizers to train them to lead.

Community allies hold blessing of Loyola University Chicago workers.

But in almost every case, too, a strong committee of campus and community leaders also trained as organizers to co-anchor the campaigns.  It wasn’t just the lefty kids and hippie professors.  It was everyone from the campus left to the mainstream and sometimes even conservative.  From sororities to co-op houses and campus ministries, people came together.  They believed in the idea of a campus community and respect and were willing to work hard for its realization.

So, behind the scenes, when the worker leaders went on those house visits to their co-workers, students and professors and priests often came along.  When the worker leaders publicly stood up to their managers, the community was there too.

In this process, the divisions often created by the cafeteria counter – divisions deeply reinforced by class, race and campus’ segregated status quo – were shattered.  In these moments, the university communities included their food workers, their caretakers, and beautifully diverse groups of people stood together.

Even the university administrations were sometimes compelled to respond to ensure the right course of action.  At Dominican, the President herself was so positive about the situation that she wrote publicly endorsing the workers’ organizing effort.

Really, that’s how we won, because that power of community is hard to fight.

An Upside to Corporate Control

Of course, it also helped that none of those schools stood alone.  If any one of the Big 3 companies had really dug in for a fight at one site, organized union members at their other schools across the country would have been waiting to respond.

At Pomona, we’re in a different kind of struggle.  We’re not up against one of the companies.  The school runs the food service itself, and its Board of Trustees, chaired until recently by Goldman Sachs executive Paul Efron, has proven far from pro-union.

In December 2011, the college fired Felipa and 15 other dining workers for alleged discrepancies in their paperwork.  Many of them had worked at Pomona for many years, and many had been involved in the effort to form a union.

Even before that, the university instituted a gag rule in the dining hall, prohibiting workers from talking to any “non-employees” (read: students and faculty) in the dining hall even while on break.  At least one student was kicked out of the dining hall for trying to talk to the very people who feed students every day.

Far from encouraging a welcoming campus community, the rule didn’t even go so far as to follow federal labor law.  The General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board charged that the rule change was an unfair labor practice.  And over 1500 people sent emails to the President of Pomona decrying the draconian measure.

Pomona’s campus has been in an uproar about the workers’ issues for months, so much so that even the New York Times took notice of the contradiction between the University’s stated ideals and its actions.  Still, Pomona has not decided to do the right thing, and the workers, students and campus community continue to stand up as a united force to change the course.

I am confident that they will win, eventually.  But it is worth noting nonetheless that the story is unique among all of the other campus organizing drives UNITE HERE has helped lead in the past two years.  Of them all, Pomona is only school administration that runs its own food service and the only administration that has decided to fight the organizing effort of its own community.

Changing the Future of Campus Food

Through every one of these campaigns and through intensive summer programs as well, we have had the opportunity to train a group of workers and students on how to dig in and really organize – not simply through Twitter or text messages, but through building deep and often unlikely relationships that can withstand a struggle with a huge industry.

Those skills will contribute to other social justice issues on their campuses now, and last long past graduation from the classroom into the movement. The implications could have a much broader reach than particular collective bargaining agreements.

With that potential in mind, we are challenging ourselves to organize toward an ambitious vision for what our effort can mean for the future of campus food.

In 2011, UNITE HERE launched Real Food Real Jobs to think beyond individual campus campaigns to build and deepen connections with the sustainable food movement.  It is a recognition that food issues and labor issues aren’t just related but are inseparable.

Facing particularly high rates of food insecurity and food-related disease, food workers bear the brunt of the dysfunctional food system, while they are also key players in any effort to change it.  We can’t truly change what it means to work in campus food service if the skilled cooks only heat up frozen, pre-processed meals.  And no one will ever get truly sustainable food from farm to table without incorporating the workers in between.

Our goal is to create a new reality in institutional food service that is nourishing for workers, eaters and the planet alike.  Building an independent voice for the workers through winning the union is one critical step in that process.

But as an extension of the community we are training through those campaigns, and alongside allies like the Real Food Challenge and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, we’ve started to lay the groundwork for a movement that can build even more power than either the food or labor movement could have on its own.

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