Dining workers vote to begin strike Wednesday

Dining hall workers voted 316 to 2 in favor of striking Oct. 11 if the their demands for a guaranteed minimum salary of $35,000 and better health care are not met in negotiations. /File photo by Lauren Scornavacca
Dining hall workers voted 316 to 2 in favor of striking Oct. 11 if the their demands for a guaranteed minimum salary of $35,000 and better health care are not met in negotiations. /File photo by Lauren Scornavacca

By Rachel Morford and Guy Ovadia, news staff

Northeastern dining hall workers voted overwhelmingly to strike if they are not able to reach a contract resolution with their employer by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

The announcement came after UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing Northeastern University (NU) dining workers, tallied Wednesday’s vote, which was held from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. in Krentzman Quad. The final results were 316 votes in favor of striking and 2 against. Union representatives and dining hall staff hope the level of consensus impacts negotiations with Chartwells, a dining services company for schools which is contracted by the school.

“We are tired of being unimportant,” NU dining hall worker Angela Bello said. “This is a message to the university that we deserve a change.”

Bello, who has worked with NU dining for nine years, said demands include a minimum $35,000 salary for full-time workers and access to affordable health care. According to a previous Local 26 press release, the average salary of a dining hall worker in 2016 was less than $22,000. In a previous interview with The News, Bello said many full-time dining hall workers are dependent on subsidized housing and food stamps.

Claire Mancuso, a third-year human services major and member of Huskies Organizing With Labor (HOWL) — a coalition of NU student groups committed to supporting dining hall workers — said she was particularly motivated after hearing about the health care situation of a dining hall worker who spoke at a HOWL general meeting.

“One woman was talking about how she has three lesions in her brain, and her insurance would only cover the removal of one of them,” Mancuso said. “Nobody working full-time for a community that espouses the high ideals that Northeastern does should have to be worrying about whether or not they’re going to be alive next year.”

Jose Taibot, a spokesperson for Local 26 and a dining hall worker for 17 years, said the injustices he’s witnessed over his time at Northeastern motivated him to take action.

“When colleagues of mine are getting a cup of coffee or a meal, the manager or director would come over to them, pick up their cup of coffee, pick up their tray and say, ‘That’s the end of your break,’ and throw away their food or their coffee,” Taibot said.

The union and dining hall workers have previously voiced complaints about Northeastern receiving tax breaks from the City of Boston without adequately paying the members of the Boston community they employ.

In a Sept. 21 email to The News, Northeastern spokesperson Matthew McDonald said that as dining hall workers are not NU employees, the university is not involved in their contract negotiations.

“Dining services workers at the university, while valued members of our community, are not employed by Northeastern; they are employed by our food service vendor, Chartwells,” McDonald said in the email. “We look forward to the union and the employer reaching an amicable agreement.”

But workers and students alike have said Northeastern has the ability and obligation to advocate for food service workers. Some students, like second-year law student and HOWL member Keally Cieslik, believe Northeastern should address the complaints of the dining hall workers.

“I think the university uses the fact that there is a subcontractor as an excuse,” Cieslik said. “We all know that the university holds the purse strings. The subcontractor obviously has a contract with the university and if the university were to demonstrate that they were committed to supporting every worker on this campus, then the subcontractor would be in a position to support and meet the workers’ demands.”

Taibot said because the university contracts with Chartwells, it makes it difficult for the workers to advocate for themselves. While they represent Northeastern outwardly, he said the university feels no responsibility toward them.

“We don’t receive a single cent from the university. It’s all from a subcontractor,” Taibot said. “But that doesn’t make sense because on our uniforms it says ‘Northeastern Dining Services.’ We represent the university on our uniforms, but Northeastern doesn’t even give us the uniforms. Compass group gives us the uniforms, and we have to buy them.”

Since April, Northeastern’s dining hall workers’ union has negotiated with the university to increase their wages and improve health benefits. Local 26 moved forward in their strike proceedings after negotiations were unsuccessful.

“It is unconscionable that Northeastern does things like host antipoverty initiatives when it is literally perpetuating poverty by failing to pay a living wage,” Cieslik said. “How can we care about being interested to alleviate global poverty when we are institutionalizing poverty for the residents of this city by paying a wage that no one can live on?”

Deputy city editor Hannah Bernstein contributed to this story.

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