Hundreds of students, workers attend rally for Northeastern dining workers in Centennial Common

Erin Fine, news staff

Students from over 60 student organizations joined with Huskies Organizing with Labor and Northeastern food service workers April 16 in Centennial Common to advocate for a better contract for the workers. Huskies Organizing with Labor, or HOWL, organized the rally in conjunction with the UNITE HERE Local 26 Union.

“I really feel student-worker power today,” said Alex Madaras, a HOWL organizer and second-year history, culture, and law major, to a crowd of Northeastern students, dining workers and union organizers.

The new contract Northeastern’s dining workers are fighting for includes higher wages, more healthcare benefits and “the dignity they deserve,” a HOWL flier for the event said.

Beludchy Pierre Louis is a cook at Stetson West and a member of UNITE HERE Local 26. He said he attended the rally because “[the union is] fighting for the workers.”

“Almost everybody is trying to live outside of the city because it’s so expensive,” Pierre Louis said. “We’re doing this so people won’t have to work two jobs.”

Dining hall workers at Northeastern have their work week capped at 37.5 hours, which Pierre Louis said makes workers seek out multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

Dining hall workers’ current contract will be up Aug. 31, and several workers that spoke to the crowd April 16 felt affordable healthcare and better benefits should be part of their new contract.

“We are here to fight for better healthcare, less copays, better treatment under our jobs regardless of race and nationality,” Claudia Maxwell said, through translator Madaras. Maxwell is a dining worker who has worked at Stetson West for 21 years.

“One of the things I don’t have is free or discounted tuition for me or my children,” said Herma Parham, a dining worker at Café Crossing.

Northeastern dining workers are one group of many across Boston that are struggling to live within the city due to wages that fail to cover high living costs, Madaras said. Along with industry-wide staffing shortages, food service workers are facing stress at work and at home when they struggle to make rent.

“We pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Northeastern and they send it anywhere but to the workers that need it. The gentrification of Roxbury that pushes workers out is our problem,” Madaras said to the crowd. “[Northeastern] wants us to think we don’t have anything in common. That’s not true and you being here proves it.”

With a record high enrollment rate at Northeastern last year and staffing shortages amid dining workers, many workers say they are overworked and underpaid. Northeastern employs 408 food service workers for a total enrollment of over 22,000 students. These workers are struggling to provide both for hungry students and for themselves, with workers saying their wages are lower than those for dining staff at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“You see the dining workers being paid $5 to $6 less than dining workers at other Boston schools,” said Jay Patel, a member of HOWL and a second-year economics and business administration combined major.

Along with low pay, Pierre Louis said dining workers are also finding themselves overworked and unable to provide Northeastern students with quality food service.

Northeastern does not directly employ dining workers, university spokesperson Shannon Nargi told The News. The food service vendor Chartwells Higher Education employs the workers and UNITE HERE Local 26 Union negotiates the workers’ contracts.

HOWL organizers said the majority of Northeastern students they have reached out to support a changed contract. 

“Northeastern charges us $70,000 per year to attend so we expect that money to be used for good for the workers,” Patel said. “When we explained to students their money was being misused they wanted to make a change.”

Kyler Shinkle-Stolar, a third-year biology major and HOWL member, agreed. He brought up Northeastern’s meal plans, which are required for first-year students and come in at several thousand dollars per semester. While the average campus meal plan nationwide costs $563 per month according to the Education Data Initiative, Northeastern’s 17-swipe and 12-swipe meal plans come in at $930 per month and $870 per month, respectively. Shinkle-Stolar said he was concerned that these fees were not benefitting dining workers.

“With the meal plan [being] extremely expensive and then to learn that the workers aren’t being paid adequately is pretty infuriating for me personally,” Shinkle-Stolar said. “When you’re on the meal plan you’re paying so much to get food and it seems ridiculous that that money is not going to the workers who are providing that food.”

A few hundred protesters joined together on Centennial Common April 16 to push that message, a majority of whom were students. Students attending the rally echoed the message of HOWL organizers.

“There’s an injustice happening. They’re underpaid and overworked,” said Ethan Valery, a first-year mechanical engineering major that came to the rally. “It’s a big injustice happening right under our noses.”

The “student-worker power” that Madaras felt was reinforced throughout the rally. HOWL has continued to organize events for Northeastern’s food service workers where students can show their support. A march for dining workers took place in Centennial Common last Friday, April 22.

HOWL organizers said they hope students will continue to show their support for the dining workers’ new contract and bring attention to the issue. With dining workers and students rallying together, it serves as a reminder of the larger campus community working together.

“Just to physically see everyone all together there at a rally is really empowering,” Madaras said. “For us as students it makes us feel really hopeful for the future of the campus.”