Students, faculty support Sodexo workers' unionization

by Laura Gomez / Beacon Staff • April 23, 2014

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Luis Santa, right, hands over the worker's petition to organize to Steve Canario, left, general manager of Sodexo at Emerson.
Luis Santa, right, hands over the worker's petition to organize to Steve Canario, left, general manager of Sodexo at Emerson.

Over a dozen Sodexo employees and nearly 70 students rallied on Tuesday afternoon in the lobby of the Little Building to present a petition to unionize to Steve Canario, general manager of dining services at the college.

The food workers are asking for a fair process to allow them to organize, and over 75 percent of them have agreed to join Unite Here Local 26, a Boston union that represents workers in the hotel, restaurant, and the food service industries, according to Emma MacDonald, a senior marketing communication major who is involved in the campaign.   

Teresa Ascencio, who said she has worked at the dining hall’s salad bar since 2001, was the first employee to speak to Canario.

“We are here because we don’t want any more discrimination,” Ascencio said in Spanish, her voice quivering and eyes tearing up. Claudia Castañeda, a liberal arts professor, stood beside her and translated. “We have dignity as people. We want you to value the work that we do. We have rights as people.”

Ascencio said she approached Local 26 last year because she felt there was too much discrimination in her workplace.

Students cheered for her and other workers who spoke up at the rally, waving posters proclaiming “We Love Our Workers,” “We Stand Together,” and “#EChearusroar.”

Luis Santa, who stood a few feet away from in front of Canario, also addressed the general manager and said he and other workers feel unappreciated.

“We work hard to build relationships with the students,” he said, handing Canario a petition with 71 photos of the workers who are asking Sodexo to agree and enable them to organize and form a union “without threats and intimidation.”

MacDonald is the co-founder of the student social justice advocacy group Progressives and Radicals In Defense of Employees, or P.R.I.D.E., which is among the 15 campus student groups supporting the food workers. These organizations are grouped under the Coalition of Lions in Action with Workers, or CLAW.

“Emerson prides itself on diversity and inclusion,” MacDonald said in an interview, “and those progressive values need to be distributed to every part of Emerson. They are asking for dignity more than anything else.” 

Other workers spoke about low and unequal pay, irregular scheduling that doesn’t allow them to hold other jobs, and a lack of respect from managers.

“I’m a single mom, I come home late,” said Valery Alcios, wearing her Sodexo uniform. “Right now I have no one to talk to, and when I have to say something I just keep it to myself.”

In an email to the Beacon, Canario said Sodexo has working relationships with more than 30 labor unions that represent over 15 percent of its employees.  

“Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, as they choose,” wrote Canario. “Whenever a union has been recognized, we have bargained in good faith with the purpose of reaching an agreement in a timely manner.”

Emerson’s union for full-time faculty, a chapter of the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement of support, which Castañeda presented to Canario at the rally. 

“We believe that all workers at Emerson, whether subcontracted or hired by the College, are part of our community,” reads the statement. “We support the food service workers and their right to a fair process as they move to unionize.”

The Faculty Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution April 22 supporting Sodexo’s employees’ choice to unionize, according to a copy of the document MacDonald provided to the Beacon.

An online petition asking students to support the demands of Sodexo workers, created by freshman visual and media arts major James O’Connell, has gathered 350 signatures as of Wednesday night. O’Connell, a member of P.R.I.D.E., said he created the petition at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday.  

CLAW will host an event for food service workers to share their reasons for wanting a fair process to unionize April 28 in the Multipurpose Room. 

“I’m not leaving,” said performing arts major senior Suzi Pietroluongo, facing Canario, “until the people that fed me when my mother couldn’t are safe.”