BY NICK IRONSIDE // MAY 1, 2014 //
As Julie Pemberton walked out of the Student Center on Wednesday afternoon, April 30, a crowd of about 40 students and faculty members outside cheered the woman they affectionately know as “Jools.”
After some warm embraces, the entire group marched back inside in support of the unionization efforts of Sodexo workers at Curry College.
According to Pemberton, Sodexo reclassified almost all of its campus-based workers to part-time employees, stripping them of health-care benefits and vacation time.
“We went in there to hand them our petition to become a union,” said Pemberton, who was joined Wednesday by fellow Sodexo workers Scarlie Joseph and Wendy Guerrero, as well as the group of students and faculty. Another 15 to 20 students joined the mass as they marched into the Student Center.
Sodexo’s general manager for campus services at Curry, Keith Meal, initially refused to meet with the group. That prompted students to chant, “We won’t eat here!” followed by “Keith! Keith! Keith!” After five minutes, he finally emerged.
Meal told Pemberton, Joseph and Guerrero that he “was not authorized to take” the petition, but handed them a piece of paper with a mailing address for Sodexo’s corporate office, where they could send the petition.
“We just want a fair process. We don’t want to drag this on; let’s make this fair,” Pemberton said after the march. “We want to be treated fairly. We’re looking to get our sick time back, our vacation, our health. Any employee who works more than 30 hours per week is entitled to it. That’s what we’re after.
“I am scheduled 44.6 hours per week during the school year,” she added. “Many days I’m here longer because of catering or other things. I would say [I work] 45 to 50 hours, sometimes 60.”
The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has allowed companies to reclassify employees based on the calendar year, as opposed to seasonally. Because most campus-based Sodexo workers put in few hours—if any— for the company during the summer or winter breaks, Sodexo reclassified them as part-time. Previously, the company classified employees as full time if they put in 30 or more hours per week, over a six-week period.
Nationally, Sodexo employs about 120,000 workers at colleges, hospitals, nursing facilities and other locations.
Forty-five Sodexo workers at Curry signed the petition to unionize. They certainly are not alone among campus-based Sodexo employees. On April 14, at Earlham College in Indiana, UNITE HERE—a labor union that works with those in the food services industry, hotels, airports and textile manufacturing—helped organize a petition drive among the school’s Sodexo workers. Last week at Emerson College in Boston, UNITE HERE did the same.
Brendan Carey, a lead organizer of the New England Joint Board for UNITE HERE, is working with Pemberton, Joseph, Guerrero and other Sodexo workers at Curry to help them organize a union.
The college’s director of communications, Fran Jackson, wrote in an email to curriertimes.net that, “Curry College supports the right of any group of employees to improve their working conditions, and it supports the right of employees to unionize, if they so choose, in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act. The College does not engage in the employment relations between another employer and its employees.”
According to Pemberton, the support of the campus community was incredibly meaningful.
“Support of the students, support of the faculty…I was blown away,” she said. “I’m going to cry. It’s very touching…I’m at a loss for words.”
Carey said student involvement is often key to unionization efforts.
“The students started chanting, and that was really powerful because that got Keith to come out of his office,” said Carey. “The student participation was extremely impressive. Curry College clearly has an engaged and supportive student body.
“I’m just really impressed that the students and professors came out to support another part of their community—the cafeteria workers,” Carey added. “Obviously, a lot of people have really strong relationships here, and that was really shown. It was a beautiful thing.”
Senior management major Alexander Castelluccio was among a number of his friends to show up Wednesday in support. Earlier in the week, Pemberton made Castelluccio and a number of other students aware of what was happening.
“I wanted to support my good friends Jools and Scarlie,” Castelluccio said. “I was furious (after learning about the lost benefits). It’s rude. I met Jools the first day of freshman year, and I like her because she’s really calm and the nicest person to talk to. She’s friendly, always smiling.”
Andrew Lipof, a senior communication major, was also there in support of the Sodexo workers.
“They’re like our moms and dads. They’re feeding us three times a day,” said Lipof. “They work hard. We’re paying a lot of money for the food, so we want the best quality and best servers to work. If professors are getting benefits from Curry, then they should get benefits from Sodexo.”
Meal declined to comment after the event, and referred questions to Sodexo’s public relations office in Gaithersburg, Md. Calls to that office were not returned.