Bon Appetit Workers Attempt to Unionize

Some Bon Appetit employees at Emory are attempting to unionize in an effort to better negotiate wages, benefits, vacation time and working hours.

The vote to form a union was scheduled to take place Jan. 26 but was postponed until Feb. 2 due to the federal government shutdown.

Emory Unite, a Laney Graduate School (LGS) student advocacy group, has been working to support the workers’ efforts to unionize. The group also worked with SEIU at the start of the 2016-17 academic year to organize a local SEIU chapter that would represent LGS students.

The employees are working with Workers United/Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in their attempts to unionize.

“We fully support their campaign, all workers on campus benefit when any of us unionize, and we feel Bon Appetit has been unfair in refusing to recognize that a majority of workers have already expressed their desire for a union,” Emory Unite Communications Chair Jonathan Basile (24G) said.

Bon Appetit Director of Communications Bonnie Powell wrote in a Jan. 23 email to the Wheel that the company respects its employees’ right to choose representation and will honor all applicable labor laws governing a union vote.

Former chef William Bradley was quoted on a flyer published and distributed that alleged Bon Appetit has not been honoring workers’ experience and time on the job.

In an interview with the Wheel, Bradley said that in his 18 years at Emory, his wage has increased minimally, having started at $10.10 per hour and currently sitting at $14.48 per hour. When Bon Appetit replaced Sodexo, Bradley had been making $13.98, meaning his wage has increased by 50 cents an hour since 2015. Bradley told the Wheel that he had stopped working as a chef one year ago because he had a seizure and now does non-cooking duties in the DUC-ling.

Powell wrote in a Jan. 30 email to the Wheel that Bon Appetit’s minimum rate of pay has increased from $11.88 in 2015, to $12.08 in 2016, to $12.50 in 2017. Employees also receive paid holidays, a free MARTA or parking pass and free staff meals, according to Powell. Additionally, all full-time hourly employees received an additional 16 vacation hours December 2017 in addition to what they accrue annually based on their hours worked and years of service, Powell wrote.

“We value all Bon Appetit associates working at Emory University, at every level, and are proud to be a place where our employees can both share and learn valuable skills as part of a team that cooks food from scratch,” Powell wrote.

Clara Reid-Buchanan, who works in Cox Hall, was also quoted on the flyer distributed by Emory Unite.

“I was so upset when I found out that Bon Appetit didn’t keep their word!” Reid-Buchanan’s quote reads on the flyer. “I had a stroke before Bon Appetit took over. I need my sick time to properly take care of myself!”

Powell wrote in a Jan. 25 email to the Wheel that Bon Appetit switched employees from the vacation and sick policies of Emory’s former food service provider, Sodexo, to their own. Bon Appetit will, however, maintain employee statuses by including years of service with Sodexo, Powell wrote.

Bon Appetit posted flyers across campus detailing some of the changes they have made since taking over. The flyer, brandished with the slogan “You’ve Spoken, We’ve Listened,” states that that there will now be new policies such as employee engagement surveys, focus group meetings with the resident district manager, a shout-out program and additional options for uniforms. Additionally, Bon Appetit made 13 internal promotions in 2017 at Emory, including 12 associates promoted to managers or supervisors, according to the flyer.

Bradley told the Wheel that he believes that forming a union will allow the employees to negotiate a contract with the management to establish more fair wages, benefits, vacation times and work hours. Bradley said he ultimately wants the workers to be respected and to find common ground between the workers and management.

“If it takes getting a union to get recognized then that’s what we’ll have to do,” Bradley said. “Right now there is an imbalance of power. A contract will level the playing field because workers will get to have a say in these things, and who better to give input than the workers who do the job everyday.”

Because this is a labor issue between Bon Appetit and its employees, Emory is not directly involved in union discussions.

Emory’s Associate Vice President for Media Relations Nancy Seideman wrote in a Jan. 22 email that Emory supports a fair and positive work environment for its employees and expects its vendors to do the same.  

“Emory respects the rights of employees and employers, and the rules governing those rights, as set forth in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA),” Seideman wrote. “This includes the right of employees to support union representation, as well as their right to refuse to support union representation.”

Volunteers stood outside Cox Hall and the DUC-ling throughout the week leading up to the vote to pass out flyers and try to rally the support of students. A group of about 10 SEIU organizers and Emory student volunteers, composed mainly of graduate students, spoke with Emory community members inside Cox Hall to support the efforts of Emory food service employees to form a union.

The volunteers walked into Cox Hall around noon and dispersed themselves throughout the building. They chanted, “What do we want? Unions! When do we want them? Now!” as they passed out flyers and explained the situation to bystanders.

The flyers included stories of workers at other local colleges and universities, such as Spelman College (Ga.) and Clark Atlanta University (Ga.), who are also represented by Workers United/SEIU. Some of the volunteers later passed out flyers and spoke with students outside the DUC-ling.

Daniel Uribe (19C) said he didn’t know that the food service workers were trying to unionize until the volunteers spread their message in Cox Hall.

“It makes sense, I mean, you want security with your work wherever you’re working, and if [the food service employees] were here with the previous management, they’ve been here for a while,” Uribe said. “From the perspective of Bon Appetit they see these people as new workers, but I think [the food service employees] should still be respected.”

Angela Jiang (19C) said she had heard talk of issues regarding the hours of the employees before the demonstration.

“I think the flyers could have done a better job at explaining what’s going on here in the context of the food service workers to begin with, rather than what is a union,” Jiang said. “It would help to explain the situation first of what’s going on here, since not every student is aware of that and then bring up how unions can help.”

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