Almost all food on campus is prepared, cooked and served by members of Sodexo’s workforce, many of whom students have grown to know by name or face. But since June 30 of last year, they’ve been working without a contract.
Binghamton University Sodexo workers are represented by Albany-based United Professional and Service Employees Union (UPSEU) 1222. The union has represented the workers since May of 2015, when the workers voted out previous union Rochester Regional Joint Board with a 124-88 vote.
With the previous union, workers were unable to protest labor practices such as low wages or expensive healthcare. According to UPSEU 1222 labor relations representative Paul Iachetta, the current union wants to fix this.
However, according to Iachatta and labor relations representative Bryan Staul, negotiations have faced complications. After months of negotiating with Sodexo for a package including increased healthcare coverage, wage increases and an improved retirement plan, Iachetta said Sodexo withdrew their offer. He said this was partly due to the minimum wage increase passed by New York State this past summer which would place a burden on the company.
“It seems like it’s calculating,” he said. “There are several factors and it was kind of coincidental that it happened all at once. We were real close to a deal, just checking on some figures, and we were both close to what we wanted. That’s when they came back, canceled the first and second meetings, and withdrew all the proposals.”
The wage increase will go up incrementally every year until 2019, when it will be $15 an hour. One issue the union has with current practice entails paying every worker similar amounts, regardless of skill level.
“These are the people making food for catering events, things that are held in the Events Center, for the president and all these people, and [the highest level of cook] is making $9 an hour, which is minimum wage,” he said. “And someone who’s been there five years is making the same amount as someone who just walked on the job, or washes dishes. Based on the negotiations we’ve had they don’t want any sort of distinctions between job classifications. And there should be. These are skilled workers. People who go to culinary school, people who have degrees.”
Jim Ruoff, the Resident District Manager for Sodexo’s Binghamton Dining Services, said these complications are just due to the nature of collective bargaining.
“Everyone has different perspectives and desired outcomes and it is certainly not an easy thing to reach a mutually-beneficial agreement,” Ruoff wrote in an email. “I also think it is important to point out that the wages and benefits we currently provide were not established unilaterally by us, but rather were the result of good faith negotiations with the employees’ previous union. Ultimately, I want students to understand that we are committed to working with the union in order to reach an equitable agreement and that we will work hard to do so.”
He also added that looking back on the company’s history with the school, the relationship has always been a strong one.
“From my perspective, Sodexo has been very engaged in the discussions with the union,” he wrote. “We greatly value our 30+ year relationship with the University, especially the students and employees who make up our dining services team, and we genuinely want a positive outcome for everyone involved.”
However, Staul said this is not the case — in the example of the retirement plan, he said, the current plan they use is defunct. Of the 73 cents an hour that go towards the plan, only 44 cents go to their personal retirement fund, with the rest going towards the plan’s financial deficit.
“We have guys working here 20 years, and his estimate is $85 a month he’ll get in his retirement,” he said.
The representatives have mentioned other grievances regarding health care and sick leave as well in letters to the editor published in Pipe Dream. Ultimately, Iachetta said, BU students and administration were the key in putting pressure on the company.
“Someone’s got to be accountable somewhere,” Staul said. “Sodexo has to be accountable to the University, and the University has to be accountable to the students.”
The representatives say they have been meeting with student groups to garner support, which has also been shown by a change.org petition with 524 signatures at press time demanding a “fair contract for Sodexo workers at Binghamton University.”
One of these student groups was Binghamton University Progressives, and its president, Sara Hobler, a sophomore double-majoring in sociology and history. She said supporting the workers was a key part of economic justice and progress.
“They are a key part of the campus community, and they deserve all of the benefits that that should entail,” she wrote in an email. “We want the workers to know that the students appreciate and value them.”
The University administration has declined to participate in the negotiations, citing an intention to stay “neutral.” However, Iachetta said that silence was not neutrality.
“It’s their decision to allow this to happen on campus,” he said. “They’re a large vendor — $350,000,000 over 10 years — but they are just a vendor. By remaining silent, the University is complicit.”