On the morning of Oct. 28, students entering Fields Dining Hall were greeted by a display of carved pumpkins.
The pumpkins, each one carved by a union employee of Bon Appétit, bore messages regarding working conditions within the dining hall.
Most pumpkins referenced the workers’ dual grievances of low pay and short staffing. Some struck on the higher goals and aspirations of union workers, with one pumpkin in particular carrying a carving of a house with the word “someday” above it. While this ‘pumpkin picket’ represented a seasonal take on the more traditional picket line, the demands were serious.
While the Oct. 28 action may have come as a surprise to many students, it was far from the first time an action of this type has taken place.
As reported by The Pioneer Log in March 2018, the Bon Appétit Union, which went public in 2017, won its first contract with management in January 2018 after a long and highly publicized process of negotiation. In 2020, mere weeks before the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, the union reached a new contract with management. This 2020 contract is now at the forefront of the present union campaign.
Although there was little prior publicity, the pumpkin picket was not the first step in labor action this year. According to Bon Appétit workers, several significant issues have been at play since the beginning of the semester.
The top issue for workers is wages. Since the most recent contract was signed, the cost of living has risen drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The prices of housing, gasoline, food and even water are rising at higher than average rates. Bon Appétit workers argue that the provisions for raises in the 2020 contract are no longer adequate.
The second issue raised by the Bon Appétit workers is staffing. The same process of inflation that has raised the cost of living is also responsible for driving up wages in the service sector in Portland at large. The result is that wages provided by the 2020 contract are no longer competitive with the average service wages in Portland. Additionally, the level of affordable housing near LC, as well as limited public transportation, makes the process of commuting to a job on Palatine Hill expensive and time consuming. This factor, which Bon Appétit workers believe has not been adequately accommodated for with higher wages, further dissuades potential employees. As a result, the Bon, already understaffed at the beginning of the year, has seen effectively no net gain in employees.
Due to this staffing shortage, workers have been forced to fill the roles of multiple employees at once. This is corroborated by two individual student workers in the Bon, who spoke of a hectic environment in which non-student employees were overworked between many different stations, and where shifts are frequently left unfilled.
Ryan Jensen, General Manager of Bon Appétit at LC, commented on staffing issues.
“Our team continues to do all they can to attract, recruit, hire, train, develop, and retain a strong work force. We are working through a variety of channels to recruit new employees as fast as we can.” Jensen said via email.
According to Bon Appétit workers, though, the staffing situation threatens to deteriorate further during winter break, during which workers are temporarily laid off and forced to go on unemployment or find temporary work. This process has historically led to significant attrition of employees, and comes on top of what is already a historically large first-year class, which would pose a challenge to dining services under average conditions.
All of these building tensions came to a head on Oct. 27, when a gathering of union members presented their managers with a request for a wage increase as a starting point for negotiations, with the intention of reaching a resolution to both staffing and cost of living issues. According to those present, management declined to engage with this request, citing the 2020 contract.
In response to this, union members went public with demands the next day with the pumpkin picket, which was followed by widely shared calls for solidarity by students and student organizations on social media. This included a statement from the Associated Students of Lewis & Clark that expressed support for union wage demands and endorsed negotiations.
“ASLC stands in solidarity with Bon workers. Because Lewis & Clark College contracts a third-party —Bon Appétit— for food service, the college cannot raise wages alone for Bon employees. Therefore, we hope to see successful negotiations between Bon Appétit over increasing the wages for workers.” The statement said.
According to union workers, this action led to the opening of negotiations with management. However, negotiations have remained stagnant, with management sticking to the 2020 contract and union membership continuing to insist on higher pay.
Jensen did not give much information about Bon Appétit’s position on demands for higher wages.
“We have heard the demands from workers and have had a conversation with union representatives,” Jensen said. “However, we cannot discuss the details of our union contracts.”
Jensen characterized the relationship between the Bon Appétit workers and management as a positive one.
“Relationships between management and union employees have historically been very positive,” Jensen said. “Our managers value the contributions of team members. We look forward to our continued partnership.”
However, union workers reported that their relationship with management has grown increasingly tense since the initiation of this year’s campaign. As an example, employees cite an incident on Oct. 28 when management briefly placed the union’s carved pumpkins in a dumpster, after which the workers removed the pumpkins from the dumpster and restored the display.
The long contract negotiation processes of 2018 and 2020 pose significant historical precedent for a protracted back-and-forth between the Bon Appétit union and their management, and it remains unclear how and when the current situation will be resolved.