Op-ed: HOWL supports dining workers

Last Wednesday, as the threat of a blizzard loomed over the city, most of the Northeastern community received an alert that the university would be canceling classes and closing administrative offices Thursday. While students, faculty and administrators were free to spend the day at home, the workers who keep our campus running were not afforded this option. At 4 a.m. on Thursday, food service workers woke up for 6 a.m. shifts, knowing their 12-hour workday would be followed by a potentially treacherous commute home.

Thousands of students rely on the dining halls being open regardless of weather conditions. As students, we can forget that at any hour of the day, there are hundreds of people hard at work ensuring that our experience here, from classrooms to residence halls, is as comfortable and convenient as possible. The people who staff the dining halls play an important role during students’ most formative time on campus.

“As a first year, it’s easy to miss a lot of things from home – the cooking, the warmth, the personal interactions – but dining hall workers go above and beyond to provide that to us,” said Beca Muñoz, a freshman business administration and French double major and member of Huskies Organizing With Labor (HOWL). “Their love and help is a strong presence in our daily lives.”

Alongside dining hall workers, facilities, security and maintenance staff ensured that on the first snow day of 2017, campus was continually cleared of snow, walkways were free of ice and heating systems continued to operate.

If President Joseph E. Aoun were to neglect his job for a week, it’s unlikely many of us would notice. But even one day without dining hall workers is hard to imagine. Aoun, however, brings home $1.1 million, 53 times more than the average pay for food service workers.

Working conditions have substantially improved since food service workers unionized with UNITE HERE! Local 26 in 2012, but average annual pay is only $20,520. Living on this income gets harder every month, especially for workers who are in school or have families to support.

What does it say about Northeastern that our president makes seven figures while dining hall workers get paid poverty wages?

By contracting food services out to Chartwells (part of a multinational corporation), the administration avoids taking responsibility for this situation. We’ve heard administrators claim that the well-being of food service workers is Chartwells’ problem, not Northeastern’s. But their underlying message is that it is acceptable for some members of our university community to suffer – as long as Northeastern can shift the blame elsewhere.

Despite the university’s best public relations efforts, we know that dining hall workers are integral members of our community. Northeastern could not function without them. If Aoun truly wants our university to be “a model for society,” as he claimed in a recent mass e-mail, his administration needs to ensure living wages for all its workers.

HOWL is a coalition of hundreds of Northeastern students and 19 student organizations (and counting). Our goal is to support the organizing of campus workers and amplify their concerns to our administration. We have seen dining hall workers willing to brave blizzards in order to keep us fed. Now we must organize, agitate and act in solidarity with them to weather the storms that lie ahead.

In the coming months, dining hall workers have a chance to collectively bargain for a fairer  contract. This contract campaign represents a chance for students to fight for our own humanity.

Until every campus worker makes a livable income, has the health benefits their family needs and feels safe and respected in their workplace, our education comes at a cost none of us should accept.

Huskies Organizing With Labor formed to support dining hall workers’ unionization in 2012, and students re-established the coalition last semester ahead of the upcoming contract campaign. To contact HOWL, message the Facebook page or e-mail HOWLatNEU@gmail.com.

Photo by Jillian Wrigley

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