Amidst rising concerns about the health and safety of Vassar’s dining service workers, a coalition between Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pressed for change on Friday, Sept. 15, in a rally at the All Campus Dining Center (ACDC) that occupied the building and presented worker demands to management. SLD and SEIU called for Vassar College and Bon Appétit administrators to reply to demands for safe working conditions, organized schedules, transparent hiring and respect for workers before Friday, Sept. 22.
An SLD member who wished to remain anonymous elaborated on the org’s involvement, saying, “SLD is about students building relationships of trust with workers over long periods of time. We try to show them that we care and are here to listen and advocate as students for their concerns.”
The controversy developed out of the transition in dining service providers from Aramark to Bon Appétit at the beginning of the school year. As President of the College Elizabeth Bradley explained, “This is an ambitious transformation of our dining services, one we think will give us healthier and more exciting dining options, as well as create a new gathering space for our community. Because of the magnitude of the change, we knew there would be some challenges at the beginning.”
At the ACDC rally, local SEIU chapter Vice President Cathy Bradford elaborated, “I worked here for 21 years. Throughout these years, we had experience with different issues, but this year we have experienced serious job security threats.” The friction between SEIU and Bon Appétit has ranged from union bargaining and contract negotiation to labor-management relations and the work environment. Bradford continued, “Bon Appétit here does not listen to us or respect us. It’s either their way or no way. We have had meetings over and over, week after week, with administrators, but nobody seems to be getting or listening to our main concerns.”
Dean of the College Christopher Roellke reflected, “We have been working diligently on these issues and will continue to work on them in earnest, in good faith and in alignment with our collective bargaining agreement. My advice for students and workers is to continue to allow the dialogue to proceed as it should via the processes outlined in the collective bargaining agreement.”
This agreement, effective from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2018, outlines a four-step procedure for the redress of grievances between the SEIU and the Office of Human Resources and concludes with a binding arbitration. With regard to the time horizon of the administration’s response to SLD and SEIU, Roellke said, “At semester recess, a full comprehensive assessment will take place, and we will have a much better sense of additional steps we need to take to make this dining program fly.”
But for dining service workers, the situation remains urgent. Bradford said, “We have had staff that was carried out of here in an ambulance, and not only carried out of here in an ambulance due to the stress and the blood pressure going up sky high, but now have to go see a therapist, a psychiatrist, because of what they had to endure here.”
A separate incident reportedly involving overloaded dish stacks and standing water on the floor led to a health hazard call from the local fire department. The SEIU also reported incidents of workers being denied access to health supplies by management, as well as race-based discrimination. After being promised 12 new full-time positions to help cover new labor demands in the ACDC, the SEIU only received three new hires this school year.
“From my perspective, many, if not all, of the Deece employees have been stressed and overworked, even if they don’t show it,” said Kenji Nikaido ’20, who has worked at both the ACDC and the Kiosk, in an interview. “I’ve talked to employees who arrive at 9 a.m. and leave at 11 p.m. …The Deece must hire new workers as soon as possible and fix the unsafe working conditions, as those are the two the clearest and most dangerous issues they have currently. I believe that, should the demands not be met, another form of action would help Vassar listen to the demands.” Addressing Vassar College and Bon Appétit administrators, Bradford said, “If they feel they need three months to get this together, take as long as you do. But they need to know and understand that we are not going nowhere without a fight.”
A driving force for bringing the plight of dining service workers to public attention was the organized protest by SLD. At 5 p.m. on Friday, hundreds of students gathered in front of the ACDC and chanted, “1, 2, 3, 4, dining staff deserves more. 5, 6, 7, 8, Deece cannot retaliate … Hey there Vassar, you’re no good, treat your workers like you should … There’s no excuses for human rights abuses.”
Students and workers occupied the building for approximately an hour before leaving in a peaceable and organized manner under the guidance of three student peacekeepers. The protest also featured a heavy use of social media. An SLD member announced through the loudspeaker, “Feel free to Facebook live, Snapchat, Instagram, make sure you tag Bon Appétit, make sure you tag Vassar College, let the parents who are here on campus know what’s going on.”
Considering the effect on public image during Families Weekend, Roellke commented, “As I am a Vassar parent of an alum and also of a current student, I can certainly understand the importance of high-quality food service and the role it plays in building community. I would hope that neither parents nor alumni would be overly concerned as they should share our confidence in our collective bargaining process and our commitment to remedying concerns as they emerge.” In addition, the College feels that the switch in dining service has represented a significant boost to the Vassar community’s welfare. Roellke continued, “It is my sincere hope that the overall very positive feedback we have received on this dining transformation in terms of food quality, flexibility, farm-to-table, expanded hours and our other programmatic objectives are not lost at all in the discussion as we move forward to remedy some of the labor challenges associated with our roll-out.”
In terms of student activism, Bradley commented, “I am enjoying the conversations I am having with students about their political engagement. Staying at the table to discuss issues as they arise is important. I like the engagement and really appreciate the honesty with which students express themselves … My advice would be for students to support this process, allowing everyone to work toward a constructive conclusion.”
“[My colleagues and I] are always fully supportive of student voices. I thought today’s event was well organized and peaceful, and the concerns outlined by the Student/Labor Dialogue are important,” Roellke added, reflecting on Friday’s rally. “I am very appreciative of the tremendous effort our dining colleagues have put forth in this transformation of dining services. They, along with our own facilities operations staff, our dining leadership team and so many others on campus have really worked hard to make this dining transformation the best it can be for our community … It takes so many dedicated and hard-working people to bring a project like this to fruition, and I know our student body, our faculty and all members of the community are deeply appreciative of this incredible effort.”
The SLD member who requested anonymity commented, “Students benefit from the labor product of food service workers, but they also have a say in ameliorating conditions for workers and supporting workers on a number of issues.” Student involvement has changed the tone of the discussion, but concerns over the final outcome remain. Bradford concluded, “We need dignity, not small talk, but resolution. We should stand and not fall … We have respect and dignity in our contract. And we demand it.”