Cafeteria workers at the University of Miami unionized after a majority of workers voted in favor of representation in a card check on May 3.
The employees voted to join 32BJ, a branch of the Service Employees International Union. The bargaining unit will include 321 workers.
“It’s a huge step forward,” said Erik Brakken, the South Florida representative for SEIU. “We’re very hopeful.”
During a card check, employees sign forms affirming their support for unionization, and the signatures are counted by a third-party arbitrator.
The workers are employed by UM’s food-service contractor.
In a statement, Chartwells said it has recognized SEIU as the employees’ representative.
“Chartwells will meet and negotiate in good faith with the union. Chartwells has a long history of working productively with unions across the country and will do so in this instance as well,” the statement said.
SEIU previously organized UM’s janitorial workers.
Brakken said the union will begin negotiations with Chartwells this summer. The employees hope for better wages and benefits. Currently, some employees make less than $10,000 per year, cannot afford any benefits and have to supplement their income with government assistance, according to SEIU. The employees and advocacy groups have been fighting since last year for better pay and unionization.
Chartwells employees were relieved that they would be getting a voice. “As long as we can get a good contract and a good bargain, ... I feel great about it,” worker Betty Asbury said.
Asbury said that she has felt like she was treated with disrespect from management, and hopes that that will change with the contract negotiations.
“We are human beings who need respect,” she said. “The way they treat you on the job, it was uncalled for. I was working in fear.”
Asbury is the same “Miss Betty” whose firing last October was a catalyst for the last seven months of protests and push for a change. Asbury was reinstated a week after she lost her job when a man walked past her at one of the UM dining halls without paying.
But Asbury says she does not want to discuss that anymore.
“I really don’t want to look back,” she said. “I want to look forward to a better work environment, … bigger and better things.”
Before the card count, Chartwells requested an election from the National Labor Relations Board, but their request was denied by the board April 24.
The NLRB’s decision was unusual, said Michael LeRoy, who teaches labor law at the University of Illinois. While it is common for employers to request an election, it is uncommon for the board to reject the proposal.
“The NLRB is committed to elections. That’s a major function of the board,” LeRoy said.
He said that if the board believes the employer might pressure the employees to vote a certain way, it might deny the election request.
"If the regional director is not permitting an election, one possibility is that there is a sense that the employer has committed too many unfair labor practices to hold a fair election,” LeRoy said.
Chartwells declined to comment on why the NLRB might have denied an election.