Food service workers say $10,000 salary not enough to survive
Wearing buttons that said, “We Are Worth More,” and holding iconic civil rights placards saying “I am a Man,” food service workers at the University of Miami [UM] recently led a protest against Chartwells Dining Service — the company that is in charge of most food services at the University. They were joined by a contingency of religious leaders from South Florida, UM students and faculty, and members of the Florida District of the Service Employees International Union [SEIU], that are advocating unionization of the workers.
The workers contend that their wages are so low that they often struggle to make ends meet and that they are unable to afford health care benefits offered by Chartwells.
During the protest that took place on the anniversary of Dr. M.L. King’s assassination [April 4th], the workers, whose numbers were estimated at several hundred, gathered at the intersection of Stanford Drive and U.S. 1. Fliers were distributed with the salaries of several top UM administrators and employees, including: Al Golden [head football coach]; Jim Larranaga [head basketball coach]; Pascal Goldschmidt [dean of the Medical School]; and Donna E. Shalala [UM president] to illustrate the inequity in pay at the University. All four earned more than $1M each in 2010.
Following the rally, which featured speeches from the Rev. Richard P. Dunn, the Rev. Gaston Smith, the Rev. Gregory Thompson and The Rev. Marie Garthner, a petition with the signature of more than 50 concerned clergy from South Florida was delivered to Shalala calling for change and asking for her assistance in what some describe as “poverty wages.”
According to Eric Brakken, regional director, 32BJ SEIU [the largest property service union in the U.S.], Shalala has yet to respond.
“We have been involved with UM’s workers for almost two years and have been reaching out to a broader portion of the community — like the Black clergy that have recently joined our efforts,” Brakken said. “The Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution supported by over 200 faculty members calling on the University to increase the wages of food service workers on campus and to make sure there is a fast and fair process for workers to resolve their desired status to form a union. Chartwells has not agreed to recognize a workers union and while the faculty has spoken to the President on our behalf, we have been denied access to her.”
Black women facing the worst of times
Brakken adds that many of the food service workers are currently signing petitions that may result in a strike. [The school term will end in several weeks]. He points out that in 2006, when the University’s janitorial staff [90 percent Hispanic] faced similar working conditions, they went on a hunger strike, shut down U.S. 1 and eventually chose to form a union. He’s not sure how things will play out this time around.
“This fight is reminiscent of the issues that workers faced in 2006 except this time we have mostly Black women that are employed that can barely pay their bills,” he said.
While Chartwells would not release the number of employed food service workers, Brakken estimates that there are approximately 275 workers; 80 percent are Black and 60 percent are women. Workers were reluctant to speak on the record but two finally agreed to share their views.
“I’m upset about the low pay we receive that keeps us in poverty, not having a voice at the workplace and working in fear of losing my job,” said Betty Asbury, a Black woman in her mid-50s. She has been employed by Chartwells for two years and works on the salad bar.
“UM can tell Chartwells to do the same that they told Unicco to do for the janitors — count the [signed] union cards to see that we have a majority and start bargaining with us for improvements.”
Nicole Berry, 35, has worked on the grill for the past three years. She too is concerned about the future.
“$10,000 per year is not enough to live on in Miami,” she said. “Chartwells don’t respect us or acknowledge our hard work. UM can hold Chartwells accountable — they did it when the janitors faced the same kind of hardship. Maybe if we get a union, we can have better wages and a better future for our families.”
Response from the “U” and Chartwells
The Miami Times sent a list of questions to Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services [partnered with UM since 1994], addressing issues that included: charges of employee harassment; whether they felt there was a problem at UM; whether they had been in communication with workers and/or UM’s administration; and how much workers were paid.
Here is a summary of their response from their representative, Kristine Andrews, Compass USA [the parent firm of Chartwells]: “Financial terms regarding contracts with our partners, associate wages and personnel information, including personal financial situations, are considered confidential. Chartwells has an obligation to provide uninterrupted dining services for the campus and ensure that the safety of our associates and guests is our number one priority.”
A list of questions was also sent to the University of Miami addressing issues that included: whether UM administration had attempted to persuade Chartwells to negotiate with food service workers; why UM had allegedly intervened in 2006 with disgruntled janitors but has not done so in this case; whether UM was concerned with the significant number of women of color who as employees and the sole source of income for their families say their pay is less than adequate; and whether UM was concerned about a potential strike.
Here is a summary of their statement from Elizabeth Amore, executive director of media relations: “We understand that SEIU has been, over the past months, seeking to organize Chartwells operations, particularly at UM . . . Accordingly, the University is not taking a position other than to strongly request of both sides to abide by the rules, which, most importantly includes no harassment or intimidation of workers so that they may make a decision in an atmosphere free from coercion or pressure.”
The Rev. Rhonda Thomas, a community organizer and employee of SEIU, has been working with local clergy for the past several months. She says she doesn’t understand why UM”s administration won’t at least meet with the community’s religious leaders.
“Our recent activities mirror what Dr. King was doing when he was assassinated — advocating for better treatment of workers,” she said. “Shalala spoke with the Miami Herald but she won’t speak to Black clergy. Why won’t she speak to our community? We take this personally. The workers we represent live in Coconut Grove, in Overtown and in Liberty City. It seems like they’re being ignored.”
Thompson, one of the speakers at the April 4th rally and the pastor of New Harvest Baptist Church, is asking South Florida clergy and members of the community to come together on Friday, May 10th [the date of commencement exercises at UM] at 5 p.m. for a march and rally in support of the food service workers. They plan to meet at the intersection of Stanford Drive and U.S. 1. Thompson, president of the AACCC [African American Council of Christian Clergy], can be reached at 305-681-3500.
By D. Kevin McNeirkmcneir@miamitimesonline.com