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Group Rekindles Debate on Sodexo Labor Issues

By Tiffany Han Posted: 09/13/2010
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This is the first of a three-part series on Emory As Employer. Up next: Job Creation Through On-Campus Construction.

Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) delivered an updated labor code of conduct proposal to University President James W. Wagner’s office on Friday, adding to its March 15 proposition demands such as transportation provisions for subcontracted employees and an audit of University food service contractor Sodexo.

Wagner wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel that he intends to issue a response to the group by Sept. 17, as it had requested.

“My door is always open to our students who want to share their thoughts about matters concerning the Emory community,” Wagner wrote. “In this case, a conversation could serve to ensure that different points of view are fully heard and that points over which we agree and disagree are clarified.”

The proposal retained from the March 15 letter to Wagner its main crux, the implementation of a new labor code of conduct that provides for a president’s commission to enforce it.

SWS also called on the University for three other immediate actions: conducting an audit of Sodexo’s current and former contracts to evaluate whether the company has satisfied contractual obligations; releasing to the public Emory’s contract with Sodexo; and affording Sodexo employees public transportation subsidies that resemble those offered to direct employees of Emory.

“This is not the first time we’ve approached [the administration]. They’ve taken no action,” said Roger Sikes, SWS member and second-year graduate student in the Rollins School of Health. “The point of re-presenting [the proposal] to them was to say that we’re still here and we expect action to be taken.”

SWS approached the administration last spring following concerns that subcontractors are not held to the same labor standards that Emory upholds in its direct hires. The group argued that all employees on campus should enjoy the same benefits and protection, and rallied when the University did not yield to their demands for a new labor code of conduct and accompanying president’s commission.

After an initial read-through of the updated document, Wagner wrote that he would welcome further conversations with SWS but does not expect the administration’s stance to change substantially from last spring.

The administration maintained last spring that labor issues between Sodexo and its employees are best handled between the two, adding that the responsibility of Sodexo and its workers to seek remedies through available procedures and legal means precedes the University’s responsibility to interfere.

The proposed labor code of conduct­ — which SWS is asking the University to implement in contracts with all future contractors — also calls for redefined living wages in line with the regional Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers and at least equal to 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold for a family of four.

Emory currently mandates a living wage rate of $10.75 per hour for all workers on campus, up from $10.50 last year.

According to the Emory Dining website, the University defines the living wage 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.”

“Workers on our campus are not single; they have children or families,” Sikes said. “They’re struggling. They need to be making more to be living in Atlanta.”

SWS amended the name of its proposed commission from the President’s Commission on the Status of Labor to the President’s Commission on the Status of Class after discussions with faculty members. Last spring, faculty members were among the 800 signatures on the March 15 letter to President Wagner.

History Professor Jonathan Prude and Professor of Women’s Studies Lynne Huffer later submitted a letter to the administration signed by 78 faculty members, urging the University to consider its role as an employer beyond its direct employees. The letter endorsed SWS’ proposal for a presidential commission and a universal labor code of conduct as starting points.

According to Prude, he and Huffer met with Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Earl Lewis several times and moved towards a tentative agreement that the University could benefit from a committee of some sort, made up of faculty, student representatives, members of the administration and members of the non-academic workforce. The committee would be tasked with carrying on a year-long discussion on economic class at Emory, Prude said.

“Were this to go forward, it would explore a number of broad issues, including the footprint of Emory on the local labor market,” Prude said.

Though the committee would be complementary but not identical to SWS’ proposed commission, Prude said that the group, if formed, could possibly take a look at similar issues.

For example, he said, the proposed committee may want to examine the decision-making behind whether or not certain work is subcontracted and how Emory’s subcontracting activities compare with its peers.

“As the University expands, in size and people and space, the issue of Emory as an employer of non-academic workers is only going to get larger and more complicated,” Prude said.

He said he is cautiously optimistic that the committee will go forward, but emphasized that discussions are still ongoing with the Provost’s office.

— Contact Tiffany Han

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