Dining hall workers speak out for better treatment, health care


Students gather in the library quad holding signs and showing their support for workers and minority groups.

Hannah Bernstein

Roxanna Santana left her daughter with a cousin when she came to the United States in 1993 from the Dominican Republic. For a year and half, Santana worked through illness and bad weather to bring her daughter to Boston. She now works in International Village (IV) as a grill cook.

“When I was given my residency, I told the counsel, ‘What is this? This is only my card, where is my daughter’s card?’ His response was, ‘You go ahead and then we’ll figure out hers,’” Santana said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I thought I was going to die in that moment.”

Santana, IV grill cook Heidy Barreiro and Harvard University dining worker Sarah Cleary shared their stories Friday at a Huskies Organizing With Labor (HOWL) event in Shillman Hall. The speak out was part of the HOWL workers’ rights movement, which advocates for living wages, affordable health care and protections for immigrant workers.

HOWL member Pratik Dubey, a political science and international affairs combined major, said the event set the stage for more HOWL events in the coming weeks, which are designed to put pressure on the administration as it begins new contract negotiations with the workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 26. HOWL is also holding a coalition meeting Wednesday to plan a worker and student rally, which will take place April 12.

“We want to show Northeastern’s administration that we’ve got student-worker power and we’re a force to be reckoned with moving forward,” Dubey said.

Barreiro said she began working at Northeastern in 2009. Since then, she said she endured countless experiences of disrespect from dining hall managers. Once, she said she saw an older worker forced to scrub the floors on her hands and knees even though she was a food server and was not on the cleaning staff.

“That particular day, when I saw that old lady on her knees cleaning the floor, and the manager told her, ‘There is another spot, there is another spot,’ I closed my eyes and imagined that she was my own mother,” Barreiro said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I told her, ‘Give me your hand. Get up, this is not your job. You are a food serving worker.’ She looked at me with tears in her eyes, ‘But she sent me to do this and I don’t want to lose my job.’”

University spokesperson Matthew McDonald said dining hall workers are not employed by Northeastern. Rather, they are employed by Chartwells, a food catering company for schools, which contracts with Northeastern.

“Dining services workers at the university, while valued members of our community, are not employed by Northeastern,” McDonald said in an e-mail to The News. “That is an important distinction.”

Barreiro said in addition to disrespect and low wages, the workers lack adequate health care.

“My priority is respect and to be respected as a worker,” Barreiro said. “The other thing is to make our health insurance better. We have a lot of older workers and we deserve to have good quality health insurance. We are not asking for a lot. We are asking for quality care.”

Cleary spoke about a similar student-worker solidarity movement at Harvard University called the Student Labor Action Movement. With support from students, Harvard dining workers went on strike for three weeks last October before the school agreed to renegotiate the workers’ contract to include better wages and health care.

Dubey said the purpose of the event was to help students understand and empathize with campus workers.

“A lot of students interact with dining hall workers on a daily basis in the dining halls, but they don’t necessarily get to hear their stories,” Dubey said. “I think this is a great opportunity to highlight their stories and their struggles.”

Santana said her main concerns are the alleged intimidation, humiliation and disrespectful behavior of the managers in the dining halls. She said she is ready to stand up for herself and her coworkers.

“What can I tell you? The only thing we have to do is keep fighting, keep our heads up and keep fighting against those who are trying to oppress us,” Santana said.

Barreiro said the support of the students means everything to the workers.

“The young people are the essence of the struggle for us,” Barreiro said. “We want our coworkers, who are not as strong as Roxanna [Santana] and I are—they are still afraid. We want your support to tell them that we can fight and we can win.”