Following in Janitors’ Footsteps, Miami Cafeteria Workers Walk Off the Job

Micah Uetricht

Nicole Berry is one of the 321 cafeteria workers at the University of Miami who joined 32BJ SEIU in May. (32BJ SEIU)

Food-ser­vice work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi walked off the job today dur­ing the noon­time rush hour, accus­ing the university’s food ser­vice sub­con­trac­tor, Chartwells’, of bar­gain­ing in bad faith.

A year­long orga­niz­ing cam­paign cul­mi­nat­ed in 321 cafe­te­ria work­ers join­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees (SEIU) Local 32BJ in May. In nego­ti­at­ing their first union con­tract, work­ers are attempt­ing to bring their wages above the pover­ty lev­el. Eric Brakken, direc­tor of SEIU 32BJ Flori­da, says with the university’s breaks in win­ter and sum­mer, many work­ers make less than $10,000 a year.”

Work­ers say, how­ev­er, that the com­pa­ny is refus­ing to offer rais­es above 20 cents per hour. By con­trast, orga­niz­ers say the university’s jan­i­tors received 35-cent-per-hour rais­es ear­li­er this month after vot­ing to strike in late August.

We have peo­ple who have been here for ten years who make less than 10 dol­lars” per hour, says Bet­ty Asbury, a line serv­er in the cafe­te­ria who makes $9.58 after three years. She says around 15 work­ers, the major­i­ty of the shift, struck today.

Accord­ing to Brakken, Chartwells’ is claim­ing in nego­ti­a­tions that its sub­con­tract­ing agree­ment with the uni­ver­si­ty pro­hibits it from rais­ing wages sig­nif­i­cant­ly, as the cost would be passed on to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

So we request­ed the infor­ma­tion in the con­tract” with the uni­ver­si­ty, Brakken says — but Chartwells’ has not dis­closed it.

With the chants of 50 work­ers and sup­port­ers audi­ble in the back­ground, Asbury explained that she had been fired in Octo­ber dur­ing the union orga­niz­ing dri­ve, accused by Chartwells’ man­age­ment of allow­ing a stu­dent to enter the cafe­te­ria with­out pay­ing. Stu­dents and fac­ul­ty claimed the real motive was retal­i­a­tion for her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the union dri­ve, and quick­ly mobi­lized to demand her rein­state­ment. Near­ly 4,000 peo­ple signed an online peti­tion demand­ing her return, and 100 sup­port­ers ral­lied on cam­pus before Asbury was even­tu­al­ly rein­stat­ed a few weeks later. 

I knew I was loved by stu­dents and fac­ul­ty,” Asbury says. Every­one was sup­port­ing me.” 

In a state­ment released dur­ing jan­i­tors’ nego­ti­a­tion, the uni­ver­si­ty stat­ed it is not direct­ly involved in this process” — a famil­iar refrain from large insti­tu­tions who sub­con­tract their ser­vices and then claim no respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­trac­tors’ actions.

Per­haps the most suc­cinct state­ment of this sen­ti­ment came in 2001, when then-Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi senior vice pres­i­dent for busi­ness and finance David Lieber­man told the Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion that sub­con­trac­tors’ wages were their busi­ness.” He said, We don’t raise any ques­tions about their busi­ness. We allow them to pay what­ev­er they want to pay as long as they can recruit and retain work­ers, and still make a buck at the end of the day.” 

Rebec­ca Gar­cia, pres­i­dent of Stu­dents Toward a New Democ­ra­cy (STAND), a Unit­ed Stu­dents Against Sweat­shops affil­i­ate that has worked close­ly with cam­pus work­ers for years, says the university’s denial of respon­si­bil­i­ty for con­trac­tors’ work­ing con­di­tions has not changed 12 years later.

They don’t engage with the stu­dents or orga­niz­ers, because they say that’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the cor­po­ra­tion, not the uni­ver­si­ty. But that’s not the case,” Gar­cia says. It’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the uni­ver­si­ty to pro­vide for their employ­ees, whether they’re sub­con­tract­ed or not.”

The cafe­te­ria work­ers are draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the uni­ver­si­ty jan­i­tors, who in 2006 engaged in a mas­sive bat­tle with the uni­ver­si­ty and its jan­i­to­r­i­al sub­con­trac­tor at the time, Unic­co, that involved a nine-week work­er strike, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence includ­ing block­ing a high­way and an occu­pa­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty president’s office, and a weeks-long hunger strike. 

Jan­i­tors even­tu­al­ly won union recog­ni­tion, sig­nif­i­cant rais­es — from $6.40 per hour for groundskeep­ers to $8.55 per hour at the time — and improved health­care plans. The cam­paign was notable both for its mil­i­tant tac­tics involv­ing stu­dents, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and reli­gious lead­ers, and its insis­tence that the uni­ver­si­ty take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the actions of its subcontractors. 

The next bar­gain­ing ses­sion between Chartwells’ and 32BJ is on Tues­day. Brakken says that depend­ing on what hap­pens then, work­ers could be mov­ing towards a strike of all cafe­te­ria work­ers, not just those on one shift.

Asbury, who lives with­in walk­ing dis­tance of work and whose son attend­ed the uni­ver­si­ty to play bas­ket­ball before enter­ing pro­fes­sion­al leagues over­seas, says she is fond of work­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi, but believes she and her cowork­ers deserve a more.

It’s a very rich col­lege,” she says. Every­body sup­ports the uni­ver­si­ty in this neigh­bor­hood. Every kid in the neigh­bor­hood wants to go there. But the uni­ver­si­ty doesn’t sup­port the workers.”

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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