Bon Appétit workers settle on current union contract

On Friday, Nov. 17, Lewis & Clark’s Bon Appétit unionized workers negotiated their third contract with national Bon Appetit management. The negotiations had been ongoing since July 2023 with two previous revisions to this contract. At the end of the most recent all-day bargaining session, the two parties settled on a contract that satisfied many union workers. 

One of the key union members involved in the negotiation was Leslie Van, a sous chef who has been working with Bon Appétit for 13 years and at LC for seven. During her entire time at LC, she has been a part of the union.

“When I started working at Lewis & Clark, it was a couple of days after they had … voted to start the union there, so I actually wasn’t there for the (initial) organization,” Van said. “But I’ve been there for everything since.”

Bon Appétit union employees are on three-year union contracts. The second iteration of a union contract expired in April 2023, so it was time for the union to begin negotiating the third one, for which meetings began in July. Van explained how negotiations with company management typically work.

“In the initial meeting the union members come in with their opening positions and then the company tries to talk them out of (it), basically. Our opening position back in July was high, and you have to start higher than you’re willing to settle for because you have to leave room for negotiation,” Van said. “You can’t walk in and say, ‘If you give us a $2.75 raise, we’ll shut up and go away,’ because then they won’t go there. They will try to get you even lower than that.”

Van spoke about recent economic conditions that have necessitated a higher raise than in past years.

“Our opening positions were a big raise, because we have to contend with just outrageous inflation that’s been happening since COVID,” Van said. “Since people started going back to work, the opening wages, to get people to actually start working, have gotten higher and higher. And the union contract that expired was really lagging behind those opening wages.”

The union’s opening statement called for a $5 raise—a highballing strategy that ended up being very successful. 

“We really, really did start our opening offer back in July with, ‘We want a $5 raise to start out with’. And we knew that we would have to come down from there, but it gave us room to negotiate, sending the message loud and clear to management that wages really needed to come up in order for us to agree to a new contract,” Van said. “And what we ended up with was $2.75 as the opening raise. It will be backdated until October 1 [2023] so everybody that works there will now make at least $20 an hour.”

Backdating means that employees will receive payments calculated for an updated wage for work that has already occurred, back to a specific date prior. With the previous lowest pay rate being $17.25, a $20 flat minimum for everyone across the board is an influential incentive for new employees. 

“We had to send a message that raises really need to come up in order to make us competitive as a place for people to start working. If they’re offering low wages, even if we do have great benefits, low wages will turn most people off,” Van said. 

With low hiring and retention rates, LC’s dining hall suffers from continual understaffing. This has led to a high reliance on temp workers, or temporary employees hired for a need-based limited amount of time, leaving experienced workers taking on extra work to teach others.

“We’re always trying to recruit people, we need more bodies. And we need people who aren’t temp,” Van said. “Which is another thing that we addressed in this contract, the use of temps and how often you can use a temp, when what you should be doing is trying to hire people. So that’s other language that we got put into this contract that will encourage management to really try to hire people rather than just rely on temps.

The starting wage of $20 should hopefully increase retention, lessening reliance on temps—and the contract includes other wins for Bon employees, too. 

“A year into the contract, we get another raise,” Van added. “And a year after that we get another raise. We backdated the opening raise for next year from October 1 to August 15 so that when we come back from getting laid off for the summertime, we will come back to a higher wage, which helps with retention a lot.”

Van continued saying that in the second year, the raise will be split between Aug. 15 and Feb. 15 for a six-month increase of 75 cents. Then, the next half of the second year will have a raise starting on Feb. 15 for 70 cents, making a total of a 145-cent increase that year. The third year will be the same as the second, accruing an additional 145-cent raise. 

“I don’t think that we’d have gotten that far if we didn’t have really great mobilization within the ranks of our union members,” Van said. “Everybody showed up at one session or another, taking their breaks or taking their lunch half hour.”

Van pointed out the impact of personal statements so that management can understand what the daily operations actually look like on a ground level. 

“Personal statements really, really make a big difference because these are folks who are above the management at the local scene. They’re not management here at Lewis and Clark, they’re management at higher levels … so they’re slightly removed.”

The management committee was composed of a district manager, a regional vice president and a negotiation specialist for all of Bon Appetit’s accounts, according to Van.  

“They know us because we’ve worked there, and they come in and walk through and say, ‘hi,’ but we don’t work with these people on a daily basis,” Van said. “Having the chance to have our union members make statements to these higher-up managers, and tell them … ‘This is how things work. This is why it’s so difficult to retain people.’ A Taco Bell is hiring for over $20 an hour so we need to offer better wages, and sometimes it takes a bit for that to get through to them.”

In addition to union members’ personal statements, Van elaborated on the role of the union committee as a whole.

“There is a negotiating committee, and I’m on that—myself, Michelle, Laura, who is a breakfast cook in the morning (and) David, who makes pizzas in the Trail Room. And just recently, we’ve added Lisa, who is another cook, who works daytime,” Van said. “What we do to start off with is we format a little survey, and we take that to each of our co-workers, people who aren’t on the committee, and we ask them, ‘What do you want us to try to negotiate for? What’s the most important thing to you? Is it wages? Is it getting an even better deal on your health care insurance? Premiums? Is it getting more money in your retirement? Is it workload? Is it, you know, the fact that we can’t retain people, is it staffing issues?’”

Van explained that they averaged out the responses of all the workers’ priorities to figure out what factors to push for most during negotiations. 

“Not surprisingly, the most important thing to most of our union membership was wages, because of the unprecedented inflation, and because of retention. We manage to hire people, we attract people based on our great healthcare benefits, but they don’t stay because the hourly wages just aren’t high enough,” Van said. “So for our union members, it wasn’t just about getting a bigger paycheck for them. It was about getting the starting wage to be attractive enough that we can actually get people to want to work there. Because we have been chronically understaffed since the pandemic started.”

In addition to their success for starting wages and raises, the union made traction on other issues that were rated high in importance for employees, including higher health care premiums and more money in their pensions. 

To better contextualize the progress that was achieved for healthcare and pension, Van provided background from the very first contract that the union negotiated, seven years ago when the union formed.

“[In] our first contract, going back in the depths of history at this point, we won major concessions. And the first major concession was we don’t have to pay for parking anymore. We were paying to park there so we could work there, and it was prohibitive. It was like $350 a year,” Van said. “So the first thing that we got is nobody has to pay for parking anymore. And if you don’t drive, you get a free bus pass. So that was a huge step in the right direction.”

Van then explained that the money they no longer have to pay in parking fees goes toward union dues. 

“For what we used to pay for parking, we just pay in union dues now, so it’s a zero sum,” Van said. “For me, I don’t have a problem with our union dues, because I would rather pay union dues than pay for parking. And that’s just a very basic thing.”

The next big win was for healthcare coverage, which has remained, in the following years, one of the main attractions of working with Bon Appétit.

“We also won the right to union health care coverage. Obviously, Bon Appétit is a big company, and Compass Group, its parent company, is even bigger, so they obviously offer health care benefits. But they were, again, prohibitively expensive and to cover yourself was hundreds of dollars a month in what you were paying in premiums,” Van said.

She noted that employees supporting spouses or children had even more financially burdensome healthcare costs.

“With the union health care coverage, those premiums were just immeasurably [improved]. I used to pay $300 a month and now I pay $100,” Van said. 

These were big wins for the young union, but the fight was not over. As the first contract and then the second expired, progress towards pension was made. 

“We got rights to a pension in our second contract and the whole idea was to just get the pension. And we didn’t care how [good] it was; we just wanted to get in on a pension plan,” Van said. “So when we started with the pension, it was 11 cents an hour. And the second year, it was 12 cents an hour. And the third year, it was 13 cents an hour, which is where we are now.” 

They had acquired a pension—a big step—and they were willing to accept low payments in it as a sacrifice. But in this third contract, as part of their long-term negotiation efforts, the union aimed to start getting a practical and substantial amount put toward it.

“Now, as far as sustainability goes, that’s ridiculous. We need much more in the pension. But again, we’ve got to play the long game,” Van said. “So you’ve got your foot in the door, you’ve got a pension, and yes, it’s really low. But we know that in the next contract negotiation, we can add to that.”

Van described the offer that management made in contrast with the progress the union made toward a livable pension.

“We accepted the offer because the first year will go from 13 cents an hour to 33 cents an hour, which is a 20 cent raise, which is a lot. Then in the second year, we’re going to go to 38 cents an hour, so it’s only five cents in the second year, but the third year will go to 50 cents,” Van said.

She commented on the importance of attaining negotiating leverage for the next contract, three years from now. 

“They’re incremental raises, but they’re there. What we wanted to do was get moving up from out of the teens. And by the end of this contract we will be up to 50 cents an hour, which leaves us in an excellent position for the next contract. To say, ‘Great, we got up to 50 cents an hour. Let’s double that,’” Van said. “And we’ll actually have a hope of getting there. It is always playing the long game.” 

Van shared about her own position and how it affects her motivation.

“For me, I’m an hourly sous chef so I’m at the top of the pay scale for our unionized employees. And I feel like I’m in a good position, I’m not as worried about my wages as I am about the wages of the lowest paid people that I work with, because they deserve to have a life. They deserve to be able to have one job—one job should be enough. You shouldn’t have to work two jobs, and you should have good healthcare, and you should have a reasonable expectation of retirement at some point,” Van said.

She pointed out that the problematic nature of raises is that people who had been working at the company for decades were not making any more than a brand-new hire in the same position.

“When we started, we had people who had worked there for 25 years who were still at minimum wage,” Van said. But the point of being in the Union is that nobody should expect after that many years working for a company to still be at minimum wage. You need for every year, you should get a little bit above minimum wage, a little farther away from minimum wage. And we’re finally there.”

Van expanded on the benefits of working in a union. 

“The Portland minimum wage is at $15,” Van said. “And our workers are going to be $5 an hour above that. And that’s the whole point of being in a union; you put your voices together, and collectively, you make life better for everybody.”

Although major progress was made for raises, healthcare, and pensions, one area had to be compromised.   

“The one thing we did not manage to get the same is lowering the threshold for health care benefits to 20 hours a week. Right now it’s 30 hours a week, and we wanted to get it down to 20 hours a week,” Van said. “We want to offer full-time jobs, but there are a lot of people who can only work part-time. And if you’re going to hire part-time people, we, the union membership, feel it is [Bon Appétit’s] moral obligation to give them health benefits at part-time.” 

Unfortunately, the company did not agree, but part-time health coverage is still a long-term goal for the union. 

“We can work on that in our next contract. Contracts are only three years long, so if we don’t get what you want in this contract, we try again in the next and that’s what we’ll do. We want to be able to have health care benefits for part time workers. If you’re going to hire part-time workers, cover them. That’s our position.”

Now that the contract has been settled, the union must ratify it, but it is looking likely that it will be approved.

“Our membership at large still needs to vote, and we’re going to do that next week,” Van said. “And our feedback from our membership has been entirely positive.” 

Van highlighted the huge wave of student support as a critical factor in their success to getting management to concede to so many of their needs. 

“In the end, I think what really caused them to say we need to offer better numbers was the just massive amount of student support we had on that final bargaining day. It was phenomenal,” Van said. 

The Nov. 17 negotiations occurred in a conference room in Fowler Student Center and starting at the beginning of the day, students flocked to the room. There were so many students spectating in the room that it broke the Fire Code, and a limit had to be set so that there was a maximum of three students in the room at all times. 

Yet, this did not deter them. A large gathering formed outside the room’s windows in front of Fowler. Students made signs emblazoned with statements such as, “Support our back Bon or break the student body” and “We have a Bon to pick,” that they held up to the windows and to passersby. 

“A lot of people, a lot of the students themselves, really didn’t get to see the look on the faces of those managers,” Van said. “But when there was a crowd outside chanting and holding signs, they looked nervous. There’s just no other way to say it. They were like, ‘Oh, crap, that’s a lot of people.’” 

During the periods throughout the day when the union was waiting for management to return with a revised offer, Bon Appétit employees went outside to high-five the student protesters and express their gratitude. 

“The pressure [on management] is having a group of students who go there who pay their bills, who pay Bon Appétit through their meal plans. To know that they are feeling that pressure and recognizing that the students really do support us and want to see us succeed, to have a job with a living wage and someday retire and have great health benefits,” Van said.

“That student support really made a difference to how much the managers were willing to put on the table. There’s just no way we can ever properly thank those people.” 

Lola Ecker ’25 was one of the students who protested. She explained how she became involved with the cause.

“I love unions, I’m so passionate about labor rights. Philosophy Club, which I’m a member of, did a week on organized labor and preparation for the union protest. So I heard about it there and I said, ‘I would love to go. I care very deeply about this topic,’” Ecker said.

She discussed the unexpected duration of the protest that ensued. 

“I thought it was fun and exciting. We made it way longer than I thought we were going to. I was there for eight hours in total,” Ecker said. “I thought we were going to dissipate in the afternoon so I was really excited when we didn’t.” 

Seeing the positive results that came after the protest was highly gratifying for Ecker. 

“That was one of the most affirmative movements I’ve been in, because usually when you protest you show up and nothing really happens or nothing happens for a couple of months. It’s really rare that you show up and you get results via direct action in one day.” 

Now looking back on the experience of this past contract negotiation and the role that her work in the union played, Van reflected on what it means to be a parent.

“I have three kids. My whole point of being a parent is to teach my kids how to have a good life. That doesn’t mean being the most educated, and it doesn’t mean being the most rich or the most powerful. What it means is that you work for yourself to get ahead, and you work for those around you to get ahead at the same time,” she said. 

Van shared how deeply she cares about her co-workers and the work that the union does. In fact, she noted that one of her children is now part of his workplace’s union, following in her footsteps. 

“I get a great deal of enjoyment from the work that I do, but I also get a great deal of enjoyment and pride from being involved with my union and making sure that I’m not just feeding people, I’m helping my co-workers to have a better life,” Van said. “And that’s why all of us do this. That’s why all of us got involved with the union. It’s not just that I want to make more money, or that I want to have better health care benefits, or that I want to have a pension, although all those things are true. The bottom line is it’s not just about me. And me getting ahead doesn’t mean anything if I’m pushing people down to get ahead.”

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