Bon Appetit union fights for sustainable future

Illustration by Anna DeSmet

By Alix Soliman

The Lewis & Clark Bon Appetit workers went public as a union in March 2017, with approximately 80 percent of the workers voting in favor of forming a union. After the vote, a large group of full-time, part-time and student workers confronted management to inform them of the unionization and to begin bargaining with them over the terms and conditions of their contract.

“We’re the only sect of the workers on campus that doesn’t have a union contract yet,” hourly Sous Chef Travis Vance said.

The union’s Bargaining Committee, consisting of four Bon Appetit employees and Union Representative and Vice President of Unite Here Local 8 Jennifer Graham, met with negotiators from Bon Appetit’s corporate office on Oct. 19 to negotiate better wages and benefits. This was their sixth and most recent bargaining session.

Graham said that the past five bargaining sessions helped secure non-economic items like union rights, grievance rights, scheduling, vacation time and seniority.

“Now we’re down to the money, which is wages, health care, parking, retirement,” Graham said.

They repositioned the classifications of the current workers based on seniority and job duties, since wages are determined by those classifications. Graham and Vance said that they felt good about how that process went.

The committee proposed $14 per hour as the lowest threshold in their initial wage proposal. They were dismayed with the company’s wage counter-proposal, which planned to contract food service workers for three years at Oregon’s minimum wage with no possibility of a raise dependent on years worked at the company. According to Graham, there are employees that have dedicated several decades to Bon Appetit and are still making $11.25 per hour.

“I’m one of the higher paid workers here,” Vance said. “I still struggle to pay bills. I still have credit problems. I cannot afford a lot of basic necessities.”

The day before the sixth bargaining session, the union held a delegation in the foyer of Templeton. Bon Appetit employees, still in their kitchen uniforms, formed a circle with students and General Manager Mac Lary. They spoke directly to Lary about their disapproval of the company’s minimum wage proposal.

“Frankly we don’t find this acceptable and we’re demanding a better pay raise the next time they come to the table,” Vance said. “We also wanted to let you know that we have the support of the students behind us now.”

Zane Dundon ’18 attended the delegation and spoke out about the importance of standing behind the union.

“I think the workers in our dining hall are members of our community and we need to stand up for them when they’re treated unfairly by the company they work for,” Dundon said.

Ten students attended the most sixth bargaining session, and the committee felt the impact of student encouragement when they sat down to the negotiating table.

“It was amazing, we had students in the bargaining room to show their support,” Trail Room Cook Leslie Van said.

“I have communication with quite a few student groups on campus,” Lead Barista and Cashier at Maggie’s Cheryl Roberts said. “They’re communicating with their higher-ups saying ‘can we get involved and be supportive,’” Roberts was cut off by a wave of laughter from the rest of the committee as they said, “We’re going to need a bigger room!”

The committee also felt the power behind their organization.

“I think we were collectively met with more respect when they walked into the room today,” Van said. “I didn’t feel the same level of animosity that I’d felt.”

Roberts agreed and spoke about how difficult but effective it is to find strength in numbers.

“It’s hard to get people who are really unhappy to do much,” Roberts said. “We got a lot of people to go out and stand up against something that we thought was wrong. I think that they didn’t expect us to be able to do that, and so when we came in after our two delegations, they were like ‘okay, we’re going to take you seriously.’”

The committee spoke about the difficulties they face in dealing with a large corporation. Bon Appetit is a division of Compass Group International, which is the largest contract food service corporation in the world, followed by Aramark and Sodexo. Compass is known for being a higher-end food service that touts its social and environmental ethics.

“They have initiatives to help other workers in the foodservice industry, like migrant farm workers,” Van said. “They have a lot of outward-seeming social responsibility, but where their social responsibility is failing is towards its own workers.”

The committee members said that they are proud to work for an environmentally conscious company, but they don’t feel the same respect is being extended to them.

“We care about food services for a sustainable future, but our futures aren’t sustainable,” Van said. “We can’t afford to live. We talk about cages, we talk about ‘gestation crate free pork’ and ‘cage-free eggs’ and yet, all of us are in wage cages that they don’t want to open. And we need that, we need to have the wage cage opened.”

Along with a livable wage, the bargaining committee is fighting for affordable health care.

“There’s a large percentage of us that qualify for Obamacare, to the point where Obamacare is free for us because we make such little money,” Roberts said. “I’m one of those people.”

The committee said that only a handful of workers have health care because it is simply out of reach based on their pay. Graham said that Compass is subsidized by the government, showing how corporate welfare is being prioritized over worker welfare.

“The company-offered HMO plans are prohibitive for even a single person, but for anybody with a family or a spouse, it’s crippling,” Van said. “I’ve seen premiums at $300. We get paid terrible money anyway, and there you go. That’s why we can’t pay rent, that’s why people need to go on food stamps. To pay for health care.”

Some committee members compared the health care plans available through Bon Appetit with the cheaper plans they had at previous jobs. Roberts paid $50 per month with no deductible at her prior job in the Fred Meyer Corporate office.

On top of the wage scale and expensive health care, the bargaining committee is concerned with the labor shortage and how it is increasing the company’s expectations of them.

“We’re having a huge problem with retention,” Van said. “All of the people who already work here are being asked to perform the duties of not just their own job, but other jobs as well, just to keep the kitchen running. So we’re all working one and a half, two, three jobs, but getting paid for the one.”

Van said that if management is interested in fixing the understaffing issue and raising their employee retention rate, they should raise the wage to a price that people are willing to work for.

The committee talked about how people are quitting because they are overworked and underpaid. Roberts said that three co-workers quit in the last two weeks.

“My grandson, Chris, he put in his two weeks notice,” Michele Martinez, cashier and barista on the grad campus cafe Food For Thought, said.

“I got to see my grandson all the time, but he just can’t make any money here,” Martinez said.

“If we could just move these negotiations forward, just a little faster, maybe they could’ve stayed, maybe we could’ve given them the ray of hope they needed to not give up,” Van said. “These are good people, and we don’t want to see anybody throw up their hands in frustration and say ‘ok well I tried to fight the good fight but I can’t take it anymore’ you know, it makes you want to cry.”

Despite the issues they face on a daily basis, the committee said that they’re willing to stay and fight because they truly enjoy their jobs and the work environment at LC.

“I love the students, I love my coworkers, I love the job itself,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to change the place that I work or the job that I do.”

Martinez’s family has been serving food at LC even before Bon Appetit and Compass took over.

“My mother started here originally,” Martinez said. “Then I started in the early nineties, after Bon Appetit took over. All three of my children have worked here, and my third grandchild, Chris, has worked here, and my great niece Patricia.”

Martinez said she has cultivated personal connections with the students, faculty and staff to the point where she is invited to graduations.

“I love the community on the grad campus, I love my job there, I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better place,” Martinez said. “It’s been 25 years and I couldn’t find myself on another campus.”

Vance recounted a similar connection to the community.

“I’ve worked in the Law School now for two months and I’m already on a name-to-name basis with almost everybody there,” Vance said. “People come up and want to talk to me and know what’s going on in my life, and I know what’s going on in theirs. We have small, but personal conversations every day.”

Although the Bon Appetit workers consider themselves to be part of the LC community, the union has not yet reached out to the LC administration for support.

“We just haven’t gotten to a point where we’ve directly talked to them or that we need them yet,” Roberts said.

The committee members don’t want to give up their jobs. They want to work under respectable conditions, and are willing to fight for as long as it takes to achieve those goals.

“We’re gonna fight until we get what’s right, what’s fair,” Graham. “So that’s how long it’s going to take.”

The next bargaining session is on Nov. 3 and is open to all. The union encourages the LC community to attend, and to remember who they are actually fighting.

“We need to have a big group of support behind us to get these things done, because without the people we’re not going to get anywhere,” Vance said. “We’re not trying to attack our managers, we like these guys. We’re not against them, we’re against the company.”

Management did not respond to requests for comment.

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