Five hundred food service workers in the New York Metropolitan area authorized strikes on Thursday, March 9, for livable wages and against subcontracting. The workers, who are represented by New York City’s largest food service union, UNITE HERE Local 100, are employed by food service and facilities management behemoth Sodexo in nine cafeterias in New York and New Jersey.
Strike authorizations at each of the Sodexo shops were announced at a rally outside the Bloomberg L.P. headquarters in Manhattan. The contracts of most of the Sodexo employees, who are cashiers, cooks, and other service workers in the swanky cafeterias of multiple Bloomberg locations, Colgate-Palmolive, and several other businesses and organizations, expired on Dec. 1, 2022. The company and the union have been unable to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
Surrounded by the luxury retail of Lexington Avenue, clad in red UNITE HERE shirts thrown over winter jackets, workers from all nine locations attended the rally. Fired up, the potential strikers brandished signs that read, “Sodexo Workers Need a Raise,” and led various chants, including “Fight poverty, not the poor!”
“I want a contract and I want it now,” Valvin Nicholson, a Sodexo worker who has worked at the United Federation of Teachers near Wall Street for 25 years, told The Real News. “I don’t need it tomorrow. I don’t need it the next day. I want it now.”
Sodexo workers are demanding raises, a minimum wage of at least $20 an hour, and the maintenance of provisions in their contracts that bar subcontracting. Yet in some locations Sodexo’s proposal included minimum wages lower than $20, like at New Jersey’s East Orange School District, where over 100 school cafeteria workers are now threatening to strike.
At the rally, the crowd of dozens cheered as speeches began with a union staff organizer announcing that Sodexo and UNITE HERE Local 100 had agreed to return to the bargaining table on March 17. Pressured by the workers’ threat of job actions, Sodexo has dropped language it introduced in the contract that would have allowed subcontracting, and upped East Orange School District’s minimum wage proposal to $20 an hour, according to the union. For now, the local has agreed not to strike.
The union organizer also announced that Sodexo lifted a lockout of staff organizers from the shops. Neither UNITE HERE Local 100 nor Sodexo provided further details about the alleged lockout when asked for comment.
When reached for a statement, Sodexo referred The Real News to a joint statement by the company and UNITE HERE Local 100, which stated, “We are confident that we are on a path, with additional and continued good faith bargaining, to reach a full agreement on all issues soon that will be fair to our employees and union members.”
Food service is a historically low-wage sector, and is often staffed disproportionately by immigrant and Black and Brown workers. Despite serving as a Sodexo cook at Bloomberg for 23 years and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, Ryllis Roberts, an Antiguan immigrant, makes less than $20 an hour. “I need more money,” she told TRNN at the rally. “My rent is going up. You’ve got to pay more for transportation. I can’t afford to live in New York.”
Around the country, workers like Roberts have been crushed by exorbitant costs of living, even before the price of energy, food, and other necessities surged in 2021. Some of the Sodexo workers provide services in the cafeteria of the Federal Reserve of New York, a powerful node of the US central banking system, in which government officials have been trying to tame rising inflation by hiking federal interest rates at a pace not seen in decades.
But it is a disturbing irony that while interest rate increases may bring down inflation, it will do so by forcing companies to fire or depress the wages of workers like those who are threatening to strike at the New York Fed over poverty pay. And while workers have been struggling to make ends meet during the inflationary crisis, companies like Sodexo, a French conglomerate with operations in 53 countries and over 420,000 employees, have been raking in massive profits.
“We are living in a time where corporations are making money hand over fist,” Alexa Avilés, a member of the New York City Council and Democratic Socialists of America, told The Real News at the rally. “We need these corporations to step up and pay their workers.”
The Economic Policy Institute has reported that corporations have taken advantage of supply chain disruptions and other factors that have contributed to rising prices — by raising prices. Indeed, as Branko Marcetic noted in Jacobin, while Sodexo’s revenues declined in 2021, they are bouncing back, with Chairwoman and CEO Sophie Bellon openly stating that “price increases…boosted revenue growth.” Sodexo is one of the top food servicers of K-12 schools in the United States — schools which have seen food price increases of 301.9% over the course of 2022.
“I think that it’s unfair that these rich corporations can get away with murder, and we are doing most of the work,” said Roberts, who will turn 56 years old this year but is often forced to work overtime. “I come to work at 7:30AM and I’m on my feet until 9:00. Because if you don’t do the overtime, you are only bringing home like $500 a week,” she continued. “Your body changes as you get older. I need more money so I can work less hours.”
In the face of such dire working conditions, workers have been fighting back around the country. Thousands of Sodexo workers have unionized with UNITE HERE across various workplaces in 2022 alone, including hundreds at Google’s cafeterias. Through their union they have won $3-4 wage increases — a significant hike for low-wage workers — in Oakland, Orlando, Williamsburg, Atlanta, and across North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey Sodexo workers aren’t the only ones who have voted to authorize strikes: members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 at the Las Vegas Convention Center greenlighted strike authority back in December 2022, but haven’t used it, as negotiations are still ongoing with Sodexo. Update 03/14/2023: On March 11, hours before the strike deadline, Culinary Union announced a tentative agreement had been reached on a four-year contract.
Roberts stressed that the role of her union in improving her wages and working conditions is indispensable. “Before I worked with our union, I never got a raise,” she said. “The union is very important because they care.”
As a single mother raising her child in New York, Roberts fought to pay for her son’s college education and to make sure he doesn’t struggle under low wages like those she’s earned at Sodexo. But she’s also fighting for her union family.
“This is not only about me,” Roberts said. “I am fighting for the generation coming after me.”