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Working In These Times

Sunday, Jan 24, 2010, 4:58 am

Unions At Odds In Campaign to Organize Multinational Sodexho

BY David Moberg

Krystal Johnson, a 45-year old cafeteria worker at Emory University, loves her job—at least her interactions with students. But as an employee of the university’s food services contractor, the giant multinational Sodexho Corporation, she hates how she’s treated (“They’re disrespectful”) and finds her $10.30 an hour pay inadequate and the company’s health insurance too expensive.

So this week she’s going to tell the company’s owners what she thinks about their business and why Sodexho should respect their workers’ rights to organize a union. When she takes the floor at Sodexho’s shareholder meeting in Paris, she says, “I really want them to understand it’s unfair for a person to be devoted to a job and treated unfairly.”

Johnson’s Paris trip is part of a campaign organized by the Service Employees (SEIU) to pressure Sodexho to sign an agreement governing organizing drives. Last week, Johnson and other employees and student supporters visited Sodexho’s U.S. headquarters in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and they went to the Conference of Mayors meeting, where Sodexho had co-sponsored a report on fighting poverty. The SEIU delegation offered its own report on how Sodexho’s corporate strategy relied on producing poverty-level jobs.

Until last year, Sodexho had respected an agreement jointly reached with SEIU and UNITE HERE five years ago for corporate neutrality in organizing a small part of Sodexho’s 80,000 American employees. The two unions had formed a joint unit, Service Workers United, which represented many of the newly organized employees of the three giant, global “multiservice companies”–Sodexho, Aramark and Compass. 

But UNITE HERE has accused SEIU president Andy Stern of playing a major role in encouraging former UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor to break away part of the union, then merging with SEIU. (Earlier there had been internal battles at UNITE HERE about the multi-service agreements, which the current UNITE HERE president criticized for giving away too much to the employer and not maintaining sufficiently high contract standards.)

That conflict looms over SEIU’s pursuit of a new deal with Sodexho.

SEIU executive vice-president Mitch Ackerman says, “We’ve gone back to Sodexho, this time to do something bigger, more meaningful." He continued:

We found the last agreement was significant for workers impacted—20,000 at Sodexho, Aramark and Compass formed a union and raise their wages. But it was not the majority of the company. The vast majority are paid poverty wages, no retirement security, no health insurance, and many not a single paid sick day.

We’ve reached out to Sodexho to create a path for more people to raise themselves out of poverty. Sodexho’s response was not, ‘Great, where do we sign?’

Ackerman says SEIU is pursuing “worker engagement” and global union cooperation in the campaign for a new organizing framework, but one that does not involve the old Service Workers United local. “We’ve started to build an extensive network of workers during the campaign,” Ackerman says. “It’s not just smoke and mirrors.”    

But UNITE HERE vice-president Jim DuPont dismisses SEIU’s campaign as merely an attempt to move into a new jurisdiction where his union is dominant, possibly as a bargaining chip in negotiating a settlement of the two unions’ dispute. “Their objective is to steal the food service jurisdiction, not organize employees,” DuPont says. “They tried to steal food service units, to raid us, and now they’re trying to claim they’re going after Sodexho, but it’s more about stealing a jurisdiction.”

If SEIU reaches an agreement with Sodexho, DuPont says, “we’ll insist on the same deal. There’s no way for SEIU to settle with them because there’s no way SEIU can guarantee labor peace,” which the employer insists on as quid pro quo for its neutrality.

Ackerman acknowledges it’s “quite possible” any deal would be contested. “But I would hope that won’t be the case. ... I think we will get an agreement,” he says. “We generally do when we run these campaigns.”

But they generally don’t run them in the midst of an ongoing, bitter dispute with another union.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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