A group of Emory, Georgia State University and Agnes Scott College students teamed up with Atlanta community members to rally in support of union representation for Sodexo food service workers Wednesday afternoon.
“Get up, get down, there’s labor unrest in this town!” the group yelled during the hour-long demonstration, marching from Cox Hall through Asbury Circle to the Dobbs University Center (DUC).
First-year graduate student in the Rollins School of Public Health Roger Sikes said the rally was organized to establish the group’s presence, to send a message to Sodexo management that the group will not tolerate inequality, to raise awareness among students and to support Sodexo workers in an effort to unionize.
“A lot of times workers are struggling, and it’s hard a lot of times for the students to recognize that,” Sikes said. “There are blatant injustices. ... it’s good to be aware of what’s really going on.”
Sikes said that Emory prides itself on being ethically engaged and that Emory students have a responsibility to stand up for what is right.
“We talk about inequality in the classroom, but we need to recognize that it’s in our own backyards, it’s happening right before our eyes,” he said.
Sodexo Resident District Manager Joe Mitchell said that Sodexo respects the rights of all employees.
“Regardless of what [Students and Workers in Solidarity] wishes to state in their pamphlets, employees are not mistreated,” he said.
Second-year graduate student in women’s studies Aimi Hamraie said she attended the rally and joined the movement because she wants to make sure that workers’ voices are heard.
“I think that as members of the Emory community we have an obligation to enforce certain ethical standards,” she said. “As a student, I’m part of the same community as the food service workers, and I have a duty to stand up for people’s rights when they’re being violated.”
The group, Students and Workers in Solidarity, was created earlier this month and has about 35 active members. The Facebook group for “Students and Workers in Solidarity” currently has 86 members.
“By sub-contracting with Sodexo, our University resources are being spent on unethical and inequitable labor practices,” reads the homepage. The group lists demands for institutionalized respect, a democratic workplace and union recognition.
Krystal Johnson, a Sodexo food service employee at Emory, released a statement last week that focuses on respect in the workplace.
“It is common for a supervisor to show a total lack of respect for me and my co-workers,” she wrote. “We have been called incompetent in a meeting ... we have been discouraged from using the bathroom when we need to. No one deserves to be treated this way.”
Sodexo employee Sade Latten, who has worked at Emory for more than six months, said she is frequently treated with disrespect.
“Today I didn’t get a break at all and I’m pregnant. ... The management knows that,” she said. “The way the management talks to us could be better. A union would get us better treatment and a better workplace.”
One Sodexo worker, who asked not to be named for fear of being fired, said the current management is the worst in more than 10 years.
“This management team is the worst I’ve seen here,” the worker said. “They are rude and insensitive, they don’t want to give people their breaks.”
The worker said that Sodexo as a company is not the problem and that the true issue is the management team. Due to what is perceived as frequent disrespect, the worker said there may be enough votes for a union.
College senior Christopher Banks said he became inspired to work on behalf of Sodexo employees because he has formed relationships with several food service workers during his years at Emory and their complaints concern him.
Banks traveled to the Sodexo shareholder meeting near Paris in January with Johnson.
He said that while Sodexo executives at the meeting upheld that workers may form unions, the Sodexo management at Emory does not support this view.
“Sodexo doesn’t practice what they preach,” Banks said, citing that Sodexo management has been showing employees anti-union videos this week.
Latten said that no anti-union videos have been shown to her.
Mitchell assured that no videos or coercion of any kind have been communicated to employees.
“Employees have come to the day-to-day managers of dining services asking questions, asking for clarifications regarding information that people representing themselves as organizers for a union have offered them,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that he decided to reach out to the employees and provide information from experts in the field who shared facts from the United States Government Department of Labor about the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
“Any information that we shared is strictly factual,” Mitchell said. “The purpose of the meeting was to let [employees] balance facts against facts they’ve been given by the union. For someone to make an educated decision, they need to hear the facts from both sides.”
Mitchell said that the meeting did not in any way condemn unions.
“[Sodexo] shared with employees that we do believe that they have the right to make their own decision whether they wish to be represented by a union or not,” Mitchell said. “We made it very clear that we will do nothing to coerce them in any way, shape or form, but we do want to make sure that they understand what representation means.”
For Sodexo workers to form a union, 50 percent plus one employee would have to vote in favor of union representation.
“We support union petition for a vote,” Mitchell said. “We support the right of employees to be able to cast a private ballot stating their opinion for or not for union representation.”
But Banks said many are afraid to join the movement for fear of losing their jobs.
Johnson wrote her statement that she wants union representation but is afraid that people do not feel comfortable voicing their opinions at work.
“You won’t get very far if you speak up,” she wrote.
Mitchell said that if the time comes that the workers wish to petition for a vote with the NLRA board, the employees will be able to make informed decisions and vote privately under the supervision of an NLRA board member.
Banks said that Sodexo workers across the world face similar problems, such as lack of respect from managers, expensive health insurance, low wages and an inadequate number of sick days.
“I’ve talked to many workers,” Banks said, “and even in England they’re having the same problems we’re having here. These people sacrifice for us on a daily basis and to be treated the way they are is unfair and unreasonable. A union is the best way to keep the Sodexo management fair and honest and make sure these workers are getting what they deserve.”
Sodexo provides a “living wage” for its employees and revisits the living wage annually, Mitchell said.
The living wage, according to the Emory Dining website, is based on the ability of an individual, working 40 hours a week, to be able to afford basic housing, food, clothing, utilities and access to health care.
“The minimum wage is set by law and does not necessarily provide income
sufficient to support a minimum standard of living,” the website states.
This year, the wage was set at $10.50, which is nearly 45 percent more than the federal minimum wage at $7.25.
“The least anyone can be paid working for Sodexo at Emory is $10.50,” Mitchell said. “Depending on your skill set, you will be paid more.”
Mitchell said that Sodexo workers are not mistreated, stating he has “nothing but the utmost respect” for Sodexo employees.
Banks said he thinks a union will improve workplace conditions and worker treatment at Emory.
“This is a worker and student collaborative effort trying to better the workplace ... and make sure that the food environment is healthy,” he said. “Doing this will help the environment of Emory.”