In addition to filing charges of unfair labor practices against Sodexho for the permanent layoff of two employees following a union meeting, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union is trying to persuade Northern Kentucky University to negotiate with Sodexho to allow workers to unionize.
H.E.R.E spokesperson Ryan Nissam-Sabat said over the past year, Sodexho workers at NKU have been intimidated and threatened with termination if they formed a union. Nissam-Sabat said he hopes with the support of students, H.E.R.E will gain an audience with the administration.
“We want the administration to say it is our campus, people should have a say in how they are treated,” Nissam-Sabat said.
NKU’s administration, however, has kept its distance from the issue of Sodexho employees forming a union.
“When a function is provided by a private vendor, we are not likely to become involved in their internal business decisions unless they somehow violated fundamental institutional values,” NKU President James Votruba said. “Otherwise, we judge their service, not how they organize to provide that service.”
This, however, does not mean the university will ignore labor issues entirely, said Ken Ramey, assistant vice president for business operations and auxiliary services. He said the university would look at complaints on a case-by-case basis. To date, Ramey said he has not heard any complaints even though he talks regularly with employees.
“My door is always open,” Ramey said. ” I would be more than happy to listen to what employees have to say.”
Until then, Ramey said the university will take a neutral stance.
Alex Birch, a student supporter of the unionization of Sodexho and member of Students Together Against Racism, said efforts to bring additional light to the treatment has stalled. He said he hopes, however, to eventually persuade the university to leave its neutral stance and create a better life for the employees of Sodexho.
“I hope to convince Sodexho to treat their employees better,”Birch said.
Northern Kentucky University is not the first place to have controversy break out over the ethics of Sodexho. Nissam-Sabat said for the last two years, workers at Xavier University in Cincinnati have unsuccessfully attempted to start a union. He said much of the workers grievances at Xavier are similar to those at NKU. Employees have complained of long hours, some stretching to 14 hours without overtime, and vague job descriptions. One employee at NKU, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, gave the example of being told to operate the remote snack stations called Moveable Feasts for an hour, then being pulled off to do stock, then being put on the cash registers, then working behind the lunch counters.
“They work us like dogs,” said another employee wanting to remain anonymous.
Rorrie Vicers, a former caterer for Sodexho at NKU who was laid off last December, said some of the management makes it tough on the employees, and for that reason, a union is critically needed.
“Your job is to do what they tell you to do,” Vicers said. “It’s not right. They work you hard out there.”
Leslie Aun, spokesperson for Sodexho, said the anti-union complaints lodged against Sodexho are unfounded, and the company is a scapegoat. It is a misconception that all workers want to join a union, she said, and unions try to blame the company for not successfully starting a union.
“It is just rhetoric,” Aun said. “Labor unions are not terribly successful in getting unions and blame us.”
Nissam-Sabat said one of the main impediments in getting both Xavier employees and NKU employees of Sodexho to unionize is a difference of how workers should vote to unionize or not. H.E.R.E. favors a system of card-check neutrality where workers publicly vote as a group and on joining a union and have no influence from the company on the decision.
Sodexho, however, favors a private ballet where the company can provide their side of the issue, Aun said. Aun said a union election should be like any other Democratic election.
“People should go into an election booth, vote and make their decision for themselves,” Aun said.
Nissam-Sabat said a private ballet leaves the workers vulnerable to intimidation by the company, and a union election cannot be the same as a regular election since one side, Sodexho, has all the power.
“In a regular election, one side doesn’t have all this power,” Nissam-Sabat said. “Employees don’t have any power over scheduling or pay. This isn’t a decision that should be made in secrecy. A union is about people coming together.”
Nissam-Sabat said it will be hard form a union at Sodexho until the ballot issue-card check neutrality issue is resolved, but the union will continue to try to shed light on Sodexho’s illegal practices
“We will continue to have the doors open and educate people on it,” Nissam-Sabat said.