Students and faculty at Kingsborough Community College marched to the college president’s office to protest the poor treatment of food service workers.
What’s the main course today? Economic justice.
CUNY food service workers – employed by nonunion, private-sector contractors – have upped their campaign for higher wages and better working conditions with a report about the widespread misery in the workforce.
The report – issued by the Retail Action Project, an arm of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) – has startling data: 70 percent of CUNY food service workers earn minimum wage and only 6 percent of workers were on record receiving employer-provided health coverage. Fifty percent didn’t receive paid sick days, according to the report, and 48 percent were on Medicaid or another government program. Twenty percent said they agreed with the statement “I struggle to meet my family’s basic needs.”
UNSAFE WORKING CONDITIONS
The New York Times, reporting on the union’s finding, told of a Kingsborough Community College worker who suffered an on-the-job fall, forcing him to go on nearly a half-year of disability, and a City Tech worker who has never seen a dime of overtime pay despite regularly working more than 40 hours per week.
“The main cafeteria at Kingsborough Community College was forced to close for a period in December after the city’s Department of Health found mice and flies. John Jay College announced in January that it would search for a new food service vendor after its Dining Commons received a C inspection rating,” the Times reported. “According to the survey, 19 percent of the workers reported being injured on the job – with most suffering falls, cuts and burns. Nearly half reported an annual household income of under $30,000, and one-fifth said that they had more than one job. Only seven workers said that they had health insurance through their job, while about four-fifths said that they received Medicaid.”
CUNY’s food service workers are not public-sector workers like PSC and DC 37 members, as the university “relies on nonprofit organizations at each campus, typically known as auxiliary services corporations, which are affiliated with, but legally separate from, the university,” the Times explained. In particular, the vendors MBJ and Metropolitan Food Services, which operate services on nine campuses, have fallen under heavy criticism for poor working conditions.
The report follows worker-led action over the last several months. In December food service workers testified at a CUNY Board of Trustees hearing about conditions at their work sites. Students and workers circulated petitions to raise awareness, and in March they demonstrated for better pay at the KCC cafeteria, before marching to the president’s office.
Ryan Schiavone, a PSC member at KCC who participated in the protest, said that after the march the administration sent a campus-wide email that the college would switch to a new food vendor. As a result, Schiavone reported to other PSC members, workers received notice of their terminations, and that PSC members and other activists would be raising money for the fired workers.
PSC delegate Dominic Wetzel said, “Why should cafeteria workers lose their jobs because of the vendor’s poor management, food prep and working conditions? This is what we call in sociology ‘blaming the victim.’ What is all the more disturbing is to learn some of these cafeteria workers have CUNY degrees, yet no health care or livable wage.”
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement regarding the survey of CUNY food service workers, “Many members of the RWDSU and its Retail Action Project are current or former CUNY students. When we learned about the working conditions and health and safety issues at campus food vendors and cafeterias, we were shocked. We launched this campaign to change those conditions. CUNY is taking aggressive action to change this, and we look forward to continuing to work with CUNY to change the way in which food service providers are chosen to ensure that their workers are treated with dignity and respect and that students and faculty get the services they deserve at CUNY.”
In a statement, CUNY Board of Trustees Chair William Thompson said the “allegations brought to our attention are outrageous and we are simply not going to stand for it.” Thompson told trustees in March, “The Board has been concerned about this issue since the November 29, 2017, hearing when it asked the general counsel to advise the college presidents of these allegations and remind them that their auxiliaries are responsible for monitoring vendor compliance with contract and law, including employment practices, and further asked them to investigate specific allegations. Additionally, on December 18, 2017, the Office of General Counsel wrote to each of the university’s food service providers, advising them of the allegations raised at the public hearing and that the colleges and their auxiliaries would be conducting a review of their operations to confirm, among other things, the payment of New York State minimum wages, compliance with the New York City Earned Sick Time Act, required meal and other breaks, and documentation of such.”
Thompson continued, “Based on the findings of these reviews, the board has been advised that the Central Office has formed a committee, consisting of Central Office staff and campus representatives, to craft an RFP [request for proposal] for the selection of a CUNY-wide food service vendor. Any such award will include strong language regarding compliance with employment laws, audit rights for CUNY and a labor harmony agreement to help protect the rights of food service workers.”
CUNY’s reforms may make it easier for these private-sector workers at CUNY to unionize. An RWDSU official told Clarion that the union expects that “the new contracting requirements from the board of trustees will include provisions requiring labor peace agreements and neutrality from any future contractors or subcontractors.”