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Friday, April 18, 2008


Workers Applaud University Decision but Lament Delay in Timeline

It was nearly a year ago last year that the Campus Food Workers launched their most recent campaign to become university employees. On May 1, 2007, joined by hundreds of UC Davis students and community members they marched from the MU to the corner of Russell and Anderson. Three weeks later, they marched on Mrak Hall shutting it down. The actions have been consistent. They have received the support of many public leaders--Lamar Heystek, Lois Wolk, Christopher Cabaldon, the Yolo County Democratic Central Committee, former President Bill Clinton, and most recently Davis Mayor Sue Greenwald.

For the University it was an embarrassment--the only institution in the system to outsource their food service workers. For the workers it was at times a life and death fight, trying to get fair wages, affordable health coverage, and job protection. The lack of affordable health coverage literally put lives at risk.

The University finally pledged to study the issue, but no one had any idea what this would mean or where this would go.

We spoke with many workers over this time. One would tell us about her appendectomy that left her with a $47,000 debt that she would never repay. For another it was the inability to buy heart medicine that put his life on the line.

For these workers, help is on the way, but not as fast as some would like or need. Yesterday, UC Davis announced that they are taking a new approach toward the management of the food service program and its employees.

According to a press release:
"Under this new direction, the campus's food service contractor, Sodexho, will continue to manage residential and retail food operations on campus, but an estimated 175 to 200 nonmanagement Sodexho employees will be eligible to transition to University of California employment.

UC Davis' decision follows an extensive, six-month-long review of food service delivery models at college and university campuses across the country that employ best practices.

Campus and Sodexo officials here say they intend to act as soon as possible to complete the process of transitioning the Sodexho employees to UC-employee status and amending the existing contract. However, they anticipate it will take nine to 12 months to finish the job in a prudent manner that fully addresses the complexity of human resource issues that need to be managed."
According to the Chancellor:
"We arrived at this new direction only after an engaged, thoughtful and collaborative process. We consulted with many key constituents, including representatives from student governance groups. Throughout the entire review process this campus was guided by several key principles to ensure that our final decision would allow us to retain the high quality and diversity of our campus food service program without weakening our commitment to access and affordability for all students."
Sodexho's senior vice president for campus services, Bill Lacey:
"Our desire is to offer the best opportunities for our employees and services to the campus. The university's decision allows us to continue our long-term relationship and commitment to our employees with our continued focus on service to the campus."
State Assemblywoman Lois Wolk applauded the announcement:
"This is a win-win solution to a problem that has divided the campus community for too long. It's a win for the workers and students and it's a win for the entire university family and the greater Davis community. It also provides for the university to benefit from the expertise and high quality food service that Sodexo management provides.

"Chancellor Vanderhoef should be praised for listening to the workers, students and many in the Davis community who supported bringing these workers into direct UC employee status."
The workers themselves were a bit more circumspect about providing praise and in their celebration. The gist of their position is that this is a good thing, they are excited, but to a person no one understands the need to wait another 9 to 12 months.

I spoke with Ashok Kumar who has worked for Sodexho for six months as a part-time employee. He earns $8 per hour and has much uncertainty about the future since he does not know how he can support his family on that wage.
"I am excited about the long term situation, but it is tough in the short term."
He believes nine months is a long time to wait. Moreover, he has been trying to become a full-time employee but they gave that job to someone else.

Kevin Cole is a worker I have spoken with before, in fact he is one of the workers that got a chance to meet President Clinton in mid-January.
"I was really happy that it happened. The only thing I really am not happy about is why we have to wait so long for this to take place. I don’t think it makes any sense to wait another year for this to take place.

They are telling us they are going through a process--I don't understand what kind of process would take 10 to 12 months? Unless you are going to have to move across the country or something, but we’re right here."
Chris Beran has been with the company for three years and have been fighting for the union the entire time.
“I’m happy with the outcome, I’m really just discouraged with the time frame and the fact that they are holding back on us.”
According to the University, this arrangement will cost an additional $2 million per year. Some of this will be passed on to students, but the university also intends to mitigate the impact.
"The transitioning of the food service employees to UC-employee status and the anticipated amendment to the Sodexo 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 a portion of these increased costs will be passed on to students, UC Davis intends to moderate the impact by: gradually passing on the increased costs over time; potentially expanding and modifying retail food services at places such as the Silo Union and the Activities and Recreation Center; using some reserve funds from the capital reserves of Student Housing and the student unions; and negotiating with Sodexho for an appropriate level of financial participation in the new approach."
That seems the least they could have done. The lack of creativity in this process has often been appalling. To use that as justification for keeping low income people in poverty wages never made any sense.

In the end, timeline or no timeline this is a tremendous victory for not only the food service workers who will hopefully by January be getting better wages, access to affordable health care, and protection in the workplace, but to the entire community. The Chancellor may have done the right thing in the end, but throughout the process it was clear that this was not his first choice. The community forced him to do the right thing. This is a victory for the workers, the organizers, the students, and indeed the entire community. The individuals, the leaders, and the people who got behind this movement are the ones that made it possible. It was a tough fight, but in the end, justice prevailed.

Those who questioned their methods, never had to walk in their shoes. The May Day Protests may indeed have inconvenienced students who needed to get to class and take exams, but for the food service workers this was a fight that for some of them was for their very lives. It is one thing to have substandard wages, it is another thing to lack affordable health care. It is a sacrifice that those students who were inconvenienced made, albeit unwittingly, that has now allowed hundreds of workers the chance for better wages and to get themselves and their families the health insurance coverage that many of them so desperately need.

Without the May Day Protests and the subsequent march on Mrak Hall is doubtful that the community would have become energized and mobilized to the extent that it was. It is doubtful that their struggle would have caught the attention of so many public leaders. It is doubtful that the university would have felt the pressure to negotiate that they eventually did without that pressure. And so today, the victory was only possible because a public university that is so insulated from public accountability, a public university that is in many ways so insulated that they are responsible to no one, bowed to the pressure of a community that would not relent. Yesterday was not just a victory for workers, it was a victory for our community and indeed in the democratic process.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting