Food fight!

Sacramento UC Davis labor struggle has led to arrests

Valerie Matthews earns $11.12 per hour working up to 38 hours a week as a cook in the Tercero student dining commons, which serves 800 to 1,000 daily meals at UC Davis. Though she stirs what’s inside the same pots, cleans up the same kitchen and is on her feet for entire shifts just like cooks employed by the university, she earns $2 per hour less than they do.

The difference is Matthews is an employee of Sodexho, a French global contractor. And like nine out of every 10 private-sector workers in the United States today—and unlike the university cooks doing the exact same job as Matthews does—she does not belong to the local labor union.

Her before-taxes pay is just over $400 a week. Matthews suffers from a medical condition that requires treatment three times a month, with a $20 co-pay for each visit under Sodexho’s health-care plan.

“I’m surviving, not living,” she says.

Working 40 hours a week would at least help, but Sodexho won’t lengthen her shifts. With or without extra hours, she believes she deserves higher wages in line with that of the university’s union cooks, who also pay less for health-care coverage than she does.

To gain better wages and health-care benefits for herself and her colleagues, Matthews joined a campaign to turn Sodexho’s on campus workforce of 300 students and 200 “career” workers into school employees. But the most significant thing to come out of that has been the May Day arrest of 24 protesters sympathetic to the Sodexho workers’ cause. They were scheduled to appear before a judge as this issue was going to print.

The movement seeking on-the-job fairness began promising enough. Beginning in early March, Matthews joined other Sodexho workers and organizers with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 in meetings with state Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

Food-service workers at all other UC campuses, including the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, are university employees who belong to AFSCME, according to Max Alper, Local 3299’s lead organizer. AFSCME represents 3,700 employees in university food service, grounds maintenance, health care and other jobs in Davis and Sacramento.

After her meetings with Sodexho workers, Wolk wrote UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef a letter dated April 10 that stated, in part: “I urge you to meet with the workers and AFSCME representatives to discuss how and when UCD will eliminate its contracting-out practice.” She then spoke to Vanderhoef on May 2.

The workers also found a vocal ally in West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who also urged Vanderhoef to meet with AFSCME and the workers. Cabaldon ventured outside city limits to take on the issue because he plans to run for the 8th Assembly District seat Wolk will be termed out of next year.

The high-powered assists apparently helped bring UC Davis administrators to the table with Sodexho workers from March through mid-June, according to Kevin Christensen, a researcher for the AFL-CIO, of which AFSCME is a part. But there has been no word from the school administrators to them since mid-June, Christensen added.

To hear administrators tell it, the talks are ongoing.

“The university is continuing its discussions regarding the issue both on campus and with Sodexho,” said Lisa Lapin, the university’s assistant vice chancellor. “We are hopeful that a resolution to the concerns that have been raised can be reached in the weeks to come.”

She could come up with a more informed answer were she to simply read off the UC Davis Web site, especially the alarming section that reveals making the 500 Sodexho workers school employees—and thus upping their pay about $600 a head—would add $3.2 million annually to the university’s budget. This would hike the prices that students pay to dine on campus at a time when UC students face a 7 percent fee increase and CSU students a 10 percent hike in ’07-08 under the state budget Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed.

Sodexho has been providing food services at UC Davis for the past 36 years. The company has a multi-year contract to handle catering services at several campus locations, including the Mondavi Center and four student dining commons. The contract included a $2 million loan from Sodexho to UC Davis to build the Tercero dining commons where Matthews labors with her fellow employees, according to Christensen of the AFL-CIO.

Brenan Connolly, general manager of resident dining for Sodexho at UC Davis, and Gina Rios, the company’s general retail manager on campus, were contacted for this story. Both declined to comment.

Some on the UC Davis campus have rallied to the Sodexho workers’ causes. The Associated Students of UC Davis Senate passed a resolution of support on February 26. But the showiest solidarity was witnessed on May 1, when Sodexho workers, community activists and UC Davis alumni sat down in downtown Davis in an act of civil disobedience. Their aim was to pressure the university to hire the Sodexho workers, but Davis police officers ultimately arrested 24 protesters on suspicion of unlawful assembly and failure to disperse when told to do so.

Katie Davalos, a third year English and women’s studies major at UC Davis, was among the nonviolent protesters arrested that day. She came to the food-service workers’ struggle from being active in the Davis anti-war movement.

“It was an eye-opening experience to meet these workers,” said Davalos, a member of a group called Students Organizing for Change. “I immediately wanted to help them.”

Having lived in the UC Davis dorms and eaten in the dining commons, she was unaware of the pay and health-care disparities between the people who cooked and served her food.

Ten of the 24 protesters arrested for the May 1 action appeared in Yolo County Superior Court on August 15. Yolo County Superior Court Commissioner Janene Beronio denied their motion for a dismissal of the three misdemeanor charges. All 24 defendants, represented by John Viola of the National Lawyers Guild, were scheduled to appear before Beronio on August 29. Deputy District Attorney Rob Gorman is prosecuting the case.

“The fight in court is another front in the fight for workers’ rights that gives us motivation to keep working,” Davalos said. “We need to make change on campus and in our community.”