Opinion Submission: WU Dining Service employees must be top priority in new contract with Sodexo
Soon, WashU’s 20-plus year contract with Dining Services vendor Bon Appetit will expire and food service management company Sodexo will be responsible for feeding the mouths and minds of our student body. Under Bon Appetit’s award-winning service, WashU has consistently been recognized as a top university in the country for food and beverage quality. An institution that prides itself on a commitment to the St. Louis community, WashU lauds its collaboration with local businesses like Coffeestamp Roasters, Companion Breads, Kaldi’s Coffee, and the social enterprise Propel Kitchens. A review of the University’s excellent food service must also include recognition of their quick adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic when serving the campus under rapidly implemented social distancing precautions.
Of all these commendable successes that contribute to our student experience, the most valuable success of Bon Appetit’s tenure is WashU dining employees winning a union contract through the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655 in 2017. This hard-won contract secured many important benefits for the more than 300 food service workers including mandatory raises, increased vacation time and funeral leave, guaranteed pay for shift work, improvement in overtime rules, and access to healthcare and retirement packages.
Without the dedicated service of our dining workers, our institution would not have earned its accolades or accomplishments for our dining services. A commitment to sustainable practices and a positive impact on the St. Louis community starts with ensuring WashU employees earn fair wages and are provided necessary benefits. According to UFCW655 President David Cook, if more than half of Dining Service workers are hired by the new food provider, Sodexo, they will be legally obligated to recognize the union for bargaining and representational purposes; if less than half of previously employed Dining Service workers contract with the new company, Sodexo may dodge accountability to a union altogether. For the University to maintain its commitment to upholding excellence in our community, any new contract must honor the union contract that Dining Service employees have already fought to win.
WashU is the second largest employer in the city. With such a great reputation comes great responsibility to be an example of equity, stewardship, and positive social impact in the region — three of the guiding principles in Washington University’s strategic plan “Here and Next” that aims to make the University a “global hub for transformative solutions to the deepest societal challenges.” A “community driven vision for academic distinction” must begin with Washington University using its power and influence here in St. Louis to center social and economic justice before tackling these issues globally.
The University is certainly known for excellence on a global scale, but locally, there can be much more distrust of the institution that has been criticized for extraction and exploitation of the community that houses its research, outreach, and expansion. Paying fair wages and providing other necessary benefits to Dining Service employees are necessary steps to addressing the racial wealth gap and health disparities that persist in St. Louis.
While the city seeks to grow through attracting enterprising businesses and a talented workforce, the University is already poised to incubate economic opportunity. When St. Louis workers are paid competitive wages, those resources are transferred directly into our local economy.
Representatives from the University have stated they expect all current Dining Service employees will have “comparable opportunities…with no loss in pay or gap in benefits.” Dining Service employees’ job stability, negotiated pay, and contracted benefits should in no way be compromised through WashU’s transition to Sodexo. The UFCW collective bargaining agreement must be upheld, and employees’ needs and concerns should be sought out and addressed in the transition to a new food management vendor. The University’s contract with Sodexo directly impacts these workers who are the key to quality food services at the school. Washington University needs to put its money where its mouth is and demand that Sodexo honors the current Dining Service workers’ union contract.