After years of working for Sodexo, John brings home $8.05 an hour, visits charities weekly to put food on the table for his children and says the only sign of appreciation he sees from management are star stickers.
Mike, another Sodexo employee at Binghamton University, who works a different position, makes slightly more after the same number of years — $9.50 an hour. This year he’s hoping to be able to “do Christmas for the kids” without having to worry about how he’ll pay for it in January, but he knows there are workers worse off.
To protect their identities, workers were granted anonymity and are referred to by pseudonyms.
Both workers say the only reason they’ve stayed with the company this long is because of the free healthcare it provided for its employees in the most recent contract, which expired in August. But according to both John and Mike, who made $12,000 and $15,000 last year, respectively, negotiators from Sodexo are calling for workers to pay for a quarter of their health insurance in the new contract.
“Our biggest thing with this contract, and I know everybody else agrees, we’re not greedy,” Mike said. “We want what’s fair.”
Sodexo Inc.’s Web site states that the company is the “leading provider of intergrated food and facilities management services in the U.S., Canada and Mexico,” and that for the fiscal year of 2007 the company brought in $7.3 billion in annual revenue.
According to Paul Kerns, general manager for Sodexo at BU, the contract covers full-time and part-time food service workers, excluding students, clerical workers and management staff. Since that contract’s expiration, Kerns has sat down with one member of the Sodexo Labor Relations Team, a union representative from UniteHERE (Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees) local 471 and a committee of at least seven workers to negotiate the terms of the new contract.
An extension of the old contract has been agreed upon in the interim, but either party can back out given 20 days notice.
“Right now we’re in the middle of negotiations,” he said, adding that he couldn’t confirm whether or not Sodexo was pushing to cut healthcare because the negotiations are ongoing. “I think both sides are bargaining as they should be.”
Kerns said that workers covered by the expired contract are paid between $7.15 and $9.50 an hour.
But the bargaining has been at a standstill for the last month or so, according to John, who said that committee members told constituents the negotiations keep getting pushed. Workers on the committee told John that negotiations were initially set for early September, but were put on hold until late October by Sodexo’s representatives because no agreement could be reached on the health care conditions.
Negotiations were delayed again after the Sodexo labor representative canceled plans to meet Oct. 27 and 28 because he was sick, and are now set for Nov. 19, John was informed.
The consistent delay in negotiations could be a tactic to scare workers away from rebellion, Mike said.
“It could go to strike, and the sad thing is if we go to negotiations this next time in November, three weeks from then campus closes for Christmas vacation,” he said. “That’s going to scare the hell out of these employees in here, ones that I know would have a hard time getting by.”
Aside from securing free health care for the next three years, the span a new contract will cover, Mike and John both said workers also want a fair wage — the former has seen $1.50 increase in his wage since he first signed on with Sodexo.
“We’re doing the same job that a state worker would do in here before they [BU officials] contracted it out, why don’t we deserve at least fair treatment?” Mike said.
At least 65 to 70 percent of Sodexo workers at BU visit local charities and soup kitchens to feed themselves or their families, John said.
Worse than the tangible conditions of his labor is the treatment he receives from higher-ups, Mike said, citing specific times when he worked multiple tasks at one time because the company was short-staffed.
At times in his career with Sodexo Mike has gone back and forth between two dining halls because other workers had called in sick.
“The sick thing is I didn’t even get a thank you from my management,” he said. “That’s sad … Treat me like an equal, talk to me like an adult.”
Instead, the company uses a sticker system to reward workers, Mike said. After an employee receives a certain number of stickers, he or she can purchase a prize, like a boom box.
Still, Kerns said the negotiations are just something that happens every three years, and Sodexo doesn’t let them to get in between management and staff.
“We just try to stay focused on taking care of students, faculty and staff,” he said. “We’re really proud of the people that work for us.”
The University is partially at fault too, according to Mike, who blamed officials for allowing such negotiations to take place.
BU spokeswoman Gail Glover said that the University plays no part in the bargaining process.
“The negotiations are between the Sodexo and their employees,” she said. “The University does not have any role in the negotiations nor is it privy to any of the discussion.”
Students on campus have drafted a petition to support Sodexo workers in their fight for a living wage, and to raise awareness, according to Ben Elliott, a senior majoring in international finance. Members of the Binghamton Political Initiative, along with students outside the organization, have garnered at least 1500 signatures in the past three weeks.