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Thursday, August 30, 2007

UC Davis' Announced Agreement with Sodexho Greeted with Hope and Skepticism

In a surprising announcement yesterday, UC Davis announced that it had reached an agreement with Sodexho with regard to providing increased benefits and wages for the company's food service employees on campus.

According to UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef in the release:
"We have listened to a wide range of sometimes-conflicting concerns, and I believe we are responding in a principled way to balance the cost of improved benefits and wages for our food service workers with the need to maintain access and affordability for our students... And, very important to me because I believe a contract is one's word, we are doing so without breaking our contract with Sodexho. Sodexho is being responsive to our requests and is committed to strengthening its overall compensation competitiveness and workplace environment."
The release further claims:
"According to the agreement, Sodexho will augment its existing medical benefits plan by increasing the employer contribution level, effective January 1. The specific employer contribution will be determined by Sodexho prior to its employee health plan open-enrollment period in October.

The changes to the Sodexho contract are expected to add additional annual costs of approximately $2 million -- an estimated $1.5 million per year in additional costs to Student Housing and $500,000 per year to the Student Union operating services."
While the university's motivation here is unclear, one thing that is clear is that this was an agreement between UC Davis and the Sodexho food company.

Dennis Shimek, Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources, confirmed for the Vanguard:
"The negotiations relative to the changes were between the UC and the Sodexho."
Mr. Shimek claims that the university according to state law cannot negotiate with these workers. There have been some meetings in the past between the university and representatives from the workers such as the one on May 23, but he "would not characterize those as negotiations." There have never been any negotiations and that they cannot negotiate with the workers employed by Sodexho.

Gary Poirier, a Principle Food Service Worker who works at the university, told us that the workers are not happy with the "offer."
"These employees have no voice at all in the process.

We've been working on this over a year, we want them to hire those workers on as UC workers eventually.

[This is] a plan that they came up with on their own, as far as I know they didn't contact the union or attempt to negotiate about this and they made the move and announced it in a press release"
For him the bottom line is for the university to negotiate with the employees in good faith.
"We just think all of those workers need to have a voice in the process, they don't have a voice, they need a voice."
According Dennis Shimek, this agreement does not preclude Sodexho Employees from becoming university employees, a point he stressed at least four times during our conversation.
The arrangements that we are now making are really interim arrangements with serious considerations toward the cost implications, how this is financed, and the cost to the students. With regards to the future issue with how we do business on campus with employees, all options on table.

The option of Sodexho Employees becoming university employees is on the table.

Phasing in the cost is an important consideration in this matter as well as the cost consideration to the students.
For him and the university, the key consideration was that the University wanted to increase wages and benefits, and felt that these are steps they could take while still being able to manage the impact on student costs.

However, for many involved in this process, Mr. Shimek and the University coming to a deal with Sodexho without discussions with the workers is not leaving all of the options on the table.

A key factor is that this deal pays the workers an additional $2 million. However, it would only take an additional $1.2 million to fully bring in these workers as university employees. That sounds like a lot to the average person but to put this into perspective, this amounts to less than one-quarter of one percent of the operating expenses of the university. That would be like an individual who makes $50,000 having to adjust their budget to include an addition $125 payment. It may not be painless, but it should not break the bank either.

The University has used the issue of balancing student fees with employees wages and yet that is not the only source of money that can be freed up to pay for these expenses. The university continues to give lucrative wages and increases to their upper administration while trying to hold the line on people making very marginal incomes.

Dan Cole is the lead cook at Segundo and in charge of the station at the Segundo Dining Commons. He has been an employee there for five years. He makes a marginal income and feels he pays a lot for his health care benefits even though they are not great benefits.

According to him, this agreement is a good start.
"Everyone’s initial reaction was kind of to get excited, but they doing it for the wrong reasons, why now? They are doing this to get around the union. I don’t see why if they can get us the two-thirds, why can’t they go the whole way."
That is a point that he kept emphasizing, the University was willing to go two-thirds of the way there in terms of wages and benefits, but that's not the end of the story. There is no reason that they cannot go all the way and give them university employee status.

He views the University's tactic however as a "tactic to get around the union issue. They want to keep us as minimally happy as possible to keep things the way they are."

He described many of the workers now as being more resolved.
"Absolutely, everyone’s reaction is quite excited."
If anything this has made them in even stronger support for the union and their goals of becoming university employees.
"Without the union, this would not happen at all. A lot of people recognize what the union brings us—whether you agree or disagree with the union here, it is clear that this would not have happened if the union weren’t here."
And so this complicated process continues. The University has not had any kind of formal or informal talks with the union or the workers since the school year ended in June. It is clear however that the university is starting to give ground on this issue and that this represents a good first step. The university basically gave the workers two-thirds of what they wanted with no concessions from the workers. That seems rather extraordinary. However, if the University was attempting to break the will of the workers with this move, it appears to have only made them more resolved to achieve their ultimate goal of university employment--a goal that at least according to Dennis Shimek, is still on the table.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting