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Organizing CUNY’s food service workers

Workers and students testified to the CUNY Board of Trustees about poor working conditions and low pay at CUNY cafeterias.

Last month’s CUNY Board of Trustees hearing included disturbing testimony from a group of CUNY workers who don’t often appear at that setting. For months, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has been organizing food service workers at CUNY where they are employed by various private-sector vendors – many have experienced systematically low wages and subpar working conditions. At the November hearing, food service workers and student organizers testified about their experiences.

While some CUNY campus food service facilities are unionized (UNITE HERE Local 100), some are not, and these sites are where RWDSU is focusing its energy. Because the vendors are outside contractors (such as Chartwells or Centerplate), they are not governed by the state’s Taylor Law and CUNY is not technically the employer. The message was clear: these working conditions should not be tolerated anywhere, and certainly not at CUNY. RWDSU has reached out to CUNY faculty and staff, urging them to support the workers’ campaign. PSC officers marched with RWDSU activists and the workers during November’s Board hearing, where PSC officers also testified.

Speaking in support of the food service activists at the board hearing, Immanuel Ness, a Brooklyn College professor of political science, said, “A core part of CUNY’s mission is to educate and lift up low- to middle-income New Yorkers, especially immigrants and people of color, and provide a pathway to the middle class. CUNY’s food service system traps these same people in a cycle of poverty, many of whom are current or former students. CUNY should not be a place where hundreds of workers are paid minimum wage at nonunion jobs.”


I had previously worked for a cafeteria at St. John’s University, where we were offered affordable benefits and more rights on the job. At St. John’s we had a union, and we don’t have one at Queens College. I think that’s part of the reason why the job at Queens College is worse, even though they’re both contracted with Chartwells. It’s unfortunate that a private university offers more for their workers than they do at CUNY schools. I was making $16 an hour at St. John’s and I make minimum wage in Queens. I expect better from CUNY and the public university system, and I think it’s a shame that we’re treated the way that we are.

Edwin Marsach
Chartwells Worker, Queens College


I quit working at Queens College because the pay was too low and there was little room for advancement. The irony of my situation is that I graduated from Queens College with a degree in food service management, so I expected CUNY to provide good jobs in their cafés and cafeterias. I used to take the health insurance provided by the vendor, but with the wages we get, it was just not affordable for me. CUNY should make sure that the vendors that operate on their campuses provide living wages and opportunities for the people who work in them. Coming from a food service management education at the school itself, to see that the university doesn’t have great management of their own cafeteria is concerning. I would like to see workers treated better and with more respect and some sort of ability to make a career out of food service at CUNY; whether the wages are better or room for advancement is a possibility, something needs to change.

Melissa Brown
Former Chartwells Worker, Queens College


I am upset that CUNY allows vendors to disrespect dining hall workers and violate our rights. I recently cut my finger on the job and was forced to go to the hospital to get treated. I missed two days of work that Centerplate did not pay me for, and I also have to pay the medical bill. I can’t afford the health benefits that Centerplate offers us, and because I recently moved from Kansas City to New York, I have not had time to enroll in the Affordable Care Act. So, my finger-injury hospital bill is not covered by any insurance and is very expensive. I’m considered a part-time worker at CUNY even though I average 36-40 hours per week, which is not fair. Another frustrating thing is that we’re not provided with uniforms at City College, which ended up costing me around $200, something I can’t afford. CUNY needs to make sure that vendors treat us fairly, offer affordable health benefits and give us a living wage.

Doreen Thoms
Centerplate Worker, City College


I’m a student fellow with the Retail Action Project. This semester, as part of a project centered on food justice at CUNY, I helped to survey food service workers about their lives and working conditions. We surveyed almost 70 workers on 14 different campuses and are working on putting together the results into a report.

Personally, I surveyed 16 workers on four different campuses. If they had time, the workers were often happy to sit down with me for 15 or 20 minutes on their break. However, at certain campuses, I was told over and over by workers that they were not allowed to answer any questions, or take a survey, or sign any petitions, even if they were on their break, or it was after their shift ended. Instead I was told that I had to speak to the manager on duty for permission. I was never able to get permission from any manager.

So my question is: What are the food service vendors afraid of? I have some guesses, but I can tell you that on every campus where we did get completed surveys, we found that workers did not make a living wage, did not have job security and only four out of 66 workers had health insurance from the job. As a CUNY student who intends to enter into a grad program here, I am so grateful for everything that CUNY has done for me. I love my fellow students and my professors have been very inspiring, but to the issue of workers who serve us all food on campus, CUNY can do better.

Pedro Freire
Student, Brooklyn College