Dining workers across the US were hit hard by the pandemic. Layoffs, staff shortages that have put immense pressure on workers (increasing workloads and creating long lines), requests by some schools for faculty and staff to volunteer to assist in dining halls—all of this has created nearly impossible working conditions. For all their sacrifices and best efforts, however, as working conditions have continued to deteriorate, pay and benefits have stagnated. As a result, some workers in this industry are attempting to unionize to improve these conditions and push universities to treat (and compensate) their workers better. 

For about five years, Ivory Merritt, a mother of three, has worked for dining services contractor Sodexo at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, a public research university that, founded in 1693, is the second oldest institution of higher education in the US. She struggles to make ends meet and works two more jobs to help fill the gap.

“Nobody should ever have to file unemployment with as much money as William & Mary or Sodexo has.”

Ivory Merritt, Sodexo worker

Her child’s father, Robert White, also worked at the College of William & Mary in dining services for years, before passing away in June 2022. Merritt noted how hard he worked for the school—White would regularly work late and come in on days off—how burnt out he was, and how tired he got of working without any appreciation from the university. “He worked so hard. We worked on his days off. He stayed late. He came in all the time whenever they asked him to make us some money. But he was really overworked and underpaid,” Merritt told The Real News. 

For Merritt, White’s death—and knowing too well how much he gave of himself to the school and how little he got in return—has driven her to stand up for herself and her coworkers by helping to organize a union at Sodexo on the College of William & Mary campus. “If he was here, he would be saying the same things that I’m saying. I’m doing it more for him and for my kids,” said Merritt. “Even with Robert’s and my income at the time we were both working at the college, it still was never enough to survive to the next check.” 

Merritt explained the numerous issues she’s experienced while working at the the College of William & Mary: erratic scheduling, low pay, understaffing, a lack of appreciation and respect toward workers, and workers constantly being put in the position of trying to secure unemployment benefits during periods throughout the year when most of the dining services are closed or limited on campus. During these periods, Merritt and other workers must try to survive without any support from their employer. “Nobody should ever have to file unemployment with as much money as William & Mary or Sodexo has,” she said, noting that higher-paid Sodexo management and school executives aren’t expected to file for unemployment during school breaks. 

She also argued the lack of pay raises and opportunities for advancement within the company have meant that new hires are getting paid the same or more than workers with years of experience. “No person should ever have to work three jobs just trying to survive,” added Merritt. “It’s a hurting feeling for me as a mother, as a parent, that I can never do anything or take my kids anywhere. I don’t have any money to do that. Or I have to figure out: ‘Am I going to buy them school clothes or am I going to pay the rent?’ Because there’s not enough money. That is the worst feeling that I’ve ever felt that I had to tell my kids.”

Students at the college who support the food service workers see the union effort as the next step in rectifying the school’s racist history. The workforce at the university is predominantly Black, while the student body is predominantly white and mostly comes from affluent backgrounds.

Screenshot of “WE ARE WILLIAM AND MARY TOO” PDF, featuring names and photos of Sodexo employees who work in food services at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. PDF courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 23.

The influx of support from students and the local community comes after successful campaigns to rename campus buildings and remove Confederate monuments at the university. These buildings were named after slave owners and racists whose historical writings have long been cited by white supremacists. “You can’t talk about racial equity without talking about class equity and labor exploitation,” Salimata Sanfo, a senior and student organizer at the College of William & Mary, told The Real News. “The union is a big part of that.”

“It’s a hurting feeling for me as a mother, as a parent, that I can never do anything or take my kids anywhere. I don’t have any money to do that. Or I have to figure out: ‘Am I going to buy them school clothes or am I going to pay the rent?’ Because there’s not enough money. That is the worst feeling that I’ve ever felt.”

Ivory Merritt, Sodexo worker

Sodexo employs around 300 workers in the dining halls on campus. Workers are currently pushing for voluntary recognition of their union, which would be affiliated with UNITE HERE Local 23

Melanie Edwards has worked at the College of William & Mary in dining services for 20 years. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US in March 2020, Edwards and all dining service employees were laid off. She criticized the lack of support for workers from Sodexo, compared to a group of students who started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the impacted workers.“The students made a GoFundMe for the workers on campus and a few of us we’re like, damn, they’ve done more for us than the company we work for,” said Edwards. 

Since returning to work, Edwards said the dining services have been severely short staffed. The company gave workers an incremental wage increase in 2021 to try and entice more new hires, but the understaffing has resulted in increased workloads for current workers who are expected to fill in the gaps. 

“We just come into work short staffed and that takes a toll on everyone. Our feet hurt, our backs hurt; you’re doing more than one thing, covering more than one station,” said Edwards. “I have a second job. It’s part-time, but I use that for things like my cellphone bill because I can’t afford to work one job right now, even full-time. It’s been difficult.”

She recently took a supervisor position, which bumped her pay up to $15 an hour, but it’s still not enough. Edwards currently lives at home with her parents and has been forced to take on debt to cover basic living expenses throughout the summer when hours are reduced due to less students and staff on campus. 

According to Edwards, workers began talking about forming a union earlier this year. They hope to address issues such as the low pay, the understaffing, unaffordable health insurance, and a punitive disciplinary attendance point system where workers are given points for using the paid time off they accrued and risk job termination if they reach seven points, which workers say is easy to do after getting sick. 

Students and workers held a rally on Sept. 20 where they delivered a petition asking for Sodexo’s neutrality in their union organizing campaign from Sodexo and support from the College of William & Mary community. 

“You can’t talk about racial equity without talking about class equity and labor exploitation,” Salimata Sanfo, a senior and student organizer at the College of William & Mary, told The Real News. “The union is a big part of that.”

The France-based food services contractor reported a drop in revenues in 2021 and 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and school enrollment decline, but still reported over 6.5 billion euros in revenue for the year in the US and has rebounded in 2022, with activity up to 97% of pre-covid levels. In 2021, the endowment of the College of William & Mary hit a historic high at nearly $1.3 billion. 

21-year-old O’Mara Pressey has worked at Sodexo on the College of William & Mary for about four years, along with her sister and mother. She also argued the understaffing results in her and other workers having to work up to three stations at once, which takes a toll on their bodies. She also works a second job because the income from working at Sodexo isn’t enough to live on.

“I work two jobs because my mom and my sister, who are also in the company, we don’t make enough to afford the rent,” said Pressey. “I don’t want to work two jobs. If we win the union, I can just work one job and have the rest of the day to myself.” Her mother and sister work different shifts for Sodexo, so they rarely see each other and are unable to spend quality time with one another. “We don’t really see each other,” added Pressey. “If we had a union, we could have money to go spend time with each other and not be too tired when it’s one of our days off.” 

The College of William & Mary deferred comment to Sodexo, saying policies and procedures for the school’s dining program are set by them. Sodexo reached an agreement with UNITE HERE that they will recognize the union upon a majority of employees agreeing to it. 

On Oct. 24, workers announced winning their union after a majority of workers signed on to ask for union recognition from Sodexo.

A spokesperson for Sodexo said by email, “We are in conversations with Unite Here on this issue and are on the verge of what we believe will be a path forward. Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, proven by the hundreds of CBAs we have in good standing with unions across the country – including with Unite Here. We are confident this one will also reach an amicable agreement for workers, unions, and our client very soon.”

Updated 10/28/2022 10:13AM

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a contributor to The Guardian and a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.