Upcoming dining hall worker contract negotiations spark student-led rally


Huskies Organizing With Labor rallied Wednesday to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Northeastern’s dining hall workers’ vote to unionize with UNITE HERE! Local 26./Photo by Alex Melagrano

By Glenn Billman, news staff

Nearly 100 students, staff and union representatives were joined by an octet of musical activists Wednesday to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Northeastern’s dining hall workers’ vote to unionize with UNITE HERE! Local 26. The group rallied in support of higher wages and more benefits for dining staff as the union prepares to renegotiate the workers’ contracts this summer.

Three workers gave testimonies about what they called low pay and inadequate benefits under the current contract. Behind them, students held signs that read $21,462, which is the average annual salary of a dining hall employee, according to Local 26 organizer Michael Kramer.

“Northeastern has a lot of money,” said Roxanna Santana, who works in the International Village dining hall. “They have millions and millions of dollars […] but I don’t have enough in my pocket to take care for my daughter when she decides to go to college.”

Several passing students and tour groups applauded and took photos as demonstrators marched to Krentzman Quad while chanting “Qué queremos? Justicia! Cuándo? Ahora!” along with its English translation, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” among other cheers.

A university spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The hour-long campaign was hosted by Huskies Organizing With Labor (HOWL) and featured live music from the Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians. Despite rainy weather, protesters gathered in the Snell Library Quad at 3:30 p.m. and the musicians began to play.

Northeastern’s dining hall workers are employed by Chartwells, a catering company for schools, which contracts with Northeastern. The current five-year contract expires Aug. 31 and negotiations for the upcoming contract will begin April 20.

“The Northeastern administration should be paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in negotiations,” Local 26 spokesperson Tiffany Ten Eyck said. “These are workers that are on their campus, these are workers that feed and serve their students every single day, and they’re a huge part of the Northeastern community. So, we believe that the Northeastern administration will want to be involved proactively in making sure that we come to a good settlement that really works for everyone.”

Harvard University’s dining hall workers, also represented by Local 26, went on strike for three weeks in October 2016 until the university agreed to a minimum full-time salary of $35,000. Northeastern workers and activists hope to achieve the same guarantee during the upcoming negotiations, according to HOWL member Kyle Giamportone.

A few minutes after their protest began, the demonstrators relocated to Krentzman Quad on instructions from Northeastern University Police Department (NUPD) officers. Deputy Police Chief Ruben Galindo told HOWL leaders the students had failed to coordinate with NUPD in advance and were interfering with the movement and studying of other students.

The group marched across Huntington Avenue, through the Stetson Quad and up Forsyth Street to Centennial Common as three NUPD officers trailed them.

Sara Rivera, the assistant director of the Latino/a Student Cultural Center (LSCC), cheered for the protesters after the noise drew her outside and she saw a student who frequents the LSCC in the crowd. While Rivera said she hoped the workers were awarded $35,000 annual pay, she also said it was not a simple issue.

“I think it’s great, but I also understand the intricacies involved,” Rivera said. “It’s not as simple as just increasing wages and agreeing to increase wages, because there’s a bunch of other factors that go beyond that. There’s revenue and there’s benefits and there’s all these other things that go into it.”

When the group reached Centennial, Giamportone announced that he and two other HOWL members had gone to Vice President of Student Affairs Madeleine Estabrook’s office during the march and attempted to make an appointment with her but were denied.

“Northeastern tries to say that they have no obligation to help because they did not hire the workers; Chartwells hires the workers,” Giamportone said. “But in reality, Chartwells is a subcontractor and Northeastern is its client, so Northeastern has significant power to influence Chartwells’ decision, and they’re not using it.”

First-year student at the Northeastern School of Law Anna Rodriguez is the daughter of a dining hall employee. She said workers like her mother struggle with inconsistent schedules and low pay, and she would like to see Northeastern and its students do more for local people after growing to become a large part of the community.

“Roxbury didn’t just pop up out of nowhere once people arrived at Northeastern for their first years as undergrads,” Rodriguez said. “I’m a law student, and I’m also a person who grew up a 10-minute walk from here, whose parent is a dining hall worker. There are no distinctions. Once you’re here, once you’re living in Boston, whether it’s transient or not, you’re a member of this community, and I think you owe it back.”

The demonstrators concluded the protest by dancing along to the performers’ music and singing a rendition of “Hey Aoun,” HOWL’s parody of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

Ten Eyck said she thought the rally was a good start to improving the lives of the dining hall staff.

“Many of the workers need more affordable heath care,” Ten Eyck said. “Many of the workers depend on public assistance to survive. So [in negotiations] we’re going to be looking at a whole host of things that will allow the to be able to access more affordable health care. It’s really clear that dinning workers at Northeastern are really struggling to survive right now, and there needs to be a solution.”