On Friday, April 23, the 50 out of 54 workers scheduled to work in Tulane University’s cafeteria Bruff Commons walked out of work to protest unfair labor practices committed by their employer, Sodexo Inc. Tulane University and Loyola contract Sodexo Inc, an international corporation, to provide all food service on campus in order to cut costs for the University. Sodexo achieves this goal by undercutting the workers’ wages and benefits in the race to bottom. In an effort to achieve bargaining power with their employer, workers have been organizing with the union SEIU’s local chapter since last fall. Very quickly those involved with the organizing began to face illegal intimidation and threats from management on both Tulane and Loyola’s campus. Sodexo workers on Xavier and Dillard's campus are unionized with SEIU and have seen improved working conditions since their organization.
The main complaints from the workers regarding working conditions are a total lack of respect from management (one woman has been working for Tulane food service for 40 years and must ask permission to go to the restroom), inadequate healthcare benefits (for most employees the healthcare plan provided would cost two weeks of their salary), and poverty wages (many Sodexo workers are paid under $9 hourly while the federal government reports living wage in New Orleans as $9.68 hourly for one individual). Many workers have waited over a year for raises, only to receive a raise of $0.20 or less while others who have worked on Tulane’s campus for more than 3 decades work for $9.50 per hour and without healthcare. Many were hired being told they could rise to management, only to realize they would be unable to do so because Sodexo would never provide training - they prefer to hire outside management. Many others were hired with the promise of full-time employment only to receive part time hours.
This walk-out was a large and loud public outcry against the injustices of Sodexo. For the first time, the Tulane and Loyola Sodexo workers seized opportunity to be public, vocal, and united. Prior to the walk-out only a few workers had come out publicly with their stories at student organized rallies and at city council hearing on April 13 because of the intimidation they experienced on the job. Most feared that if they went public with their support of a union they would face retaliation from management. The day of the strike they stood at the picket line and said, "Look at us, we are human!" to their managers as they walked by. After months of silence and fear, the workers were able to find courage in each other that day and the community of support around them, collectively demanding that management see them, hear them, and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve as humans. The first worker back on the job on Saturday told me that his manager said "Good Morning" to him for the first time ever. Their strength in solidarity was felt that day.
For more worker testimonials and information about the student campaign to pressure Tulane University and President Cowen to live up to its image as a socially responsible university, go to www.tulane.usas.org.
Lauren Elliott and Brian Ford are seniors at Tulane and members of the Tulane University Solidarity Committee.