Thursday, Sept. 15, Sodexo dining workers went public with plans to unionize. Members of the union are advocating for better wages, hours and conditions, along with benefits including health insurance and pensions.
With the support of the hospitality union UNITE HERE, a coalition of dining staff, students and other community members spent over six months organizing in secret. Since going public, the group has signed over 125 Sodexo workers up for the union.
“We are the workers who prepare, cook and serve meals every day,” a petition produced by the union says. “We work hard to make William & Mary a home away from home. We are proud to support students as they become leaders, pursue their dreams and shape a better world. Many of us have worked here for decades and served generations of students.”
Since 2014, the College of William and Mary has contracted Sodexo to run their dining services. All policies regarding the management of dining workers are under Sodexo’s control.
As employees of Sodexo, dining staff are unable to join the William & Mary Workers’ Union. Sodexo workers have unionized in other locations across the country, but this is the first major effort to unionize the company’s dining staff at the College.
“Sodexo should agree to a quick and fair process to enable us to exercise our right to organize and decide whether to form a union without threats and intimidation,” the petition adds. “We ask for the support of the William & Mary community as we stand together in our demand for the same respect that Union Sodexo workers already enjoy.”
The union is hoping to secure pensions, which Sodexo does not currently provide, and more affordable health insurance. There are also concerns regarding low wages and how employees are not given work during school breaks. Sodexo only recently increased their base pay to $15.50 per hour, even for workers who have been at the College for decades. Many feel this income is not enough to sustain themselves.
As a supervisor and employee of 20 years, Melanie Edwards makes slightly more than some of her coworkers — closer to $16 an hour. She hopes to be able to afford her own place to live soon.
“It’s kind of difficult, challenging, the financial aspect of working for Sodexo,” Edwards said. “I feel like I work more. My work is not being appreciated and I work more harder now than I ever did. And the pay is not where it needs to be for me to be on my own. So I’m currently living with my parents right now until I get my own spot.”
“I feel like I work more. My work is not being appreciated and I work more harder now than I ever did. And the pay is not where it needs to be for me to be on my own.”
In addition to poor pay and benefits, many members of the dining staff have dealt with a feeling of burnout. Edwards thinks Sodexo wants to get the most out of their staff without having to pay them a substantial amount.
“We’re overworked,” Edwards said. “A lot of workers are tired. The workers that you do have work two or three stations at a time… You just get worn out. There’s no incentive or anything, they just expect you to do it.”
Sadler server O’Mara Pressey expressed similar frustration over inconsistent and long work hours.
“They need workers that work sometimes in the morning to cook for the nighttime, or they want workers to stay for late night if they don’t have enough staff,” Pressey said. “Last year I worked lunch, dinner and late night. For like three days, and then I got a break or I kept doing it for a whole week. That gets overwhelming.”
Tuesday, Sept. 20, a group of students and workers presented their petition to Sodexo managers and administrators of the College.
The following day, over 100 students rallied at the Sadler Center to demand recognition. Organizers Salimata Sanfo ’22 and Aidan White ’23 led protestors into Center Court at Sadler to confront Resident Sodexo District Manager Jason Aupied and then coordinated chants on the terrace. According to Sanfo, Aupied and other Sodexo managers have refused to respect the workers’ demands.
“He was like, ‘Oh, we’re in discussion with people,’” Sanfo said to the crowd. “We don’t want discussion. We want action. Discussion would take forever. They could recognize this union right now if they wanted to, they just don’t.”
Aupied said Sodexo would honor the ability of workers to make their own decision about unionizing, despite not officially acknowledging the petition yet.
“Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, as they choose,” Aupied wrote in a statement to the Flat Hat. “The choice of whether or not to have a union represent our employees is important to our employees. When faced with making a decision regarding union representation, our employees have the fundamental right to hear all sides of the issue and then make an informed decision free of pressure or coercion from anyone.”
College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet added that Sodexo should recognize the needs of workers.
“The university values and respects the contributions of dining staff to the university through their work with Sodexo,” Clavet wrote in an email to the Flat Hat. “They are important members of our community and provide a critical service to our students. Our expectation with all of our contracted vendors is that they treat their employees fairly and respectfully.”
During the rally, White addressed the company’s position as an outside contractor.
“Sodexo is a guest on this campus,” White said. “This is our campus. And if students support dining hall workers’ right to organize, Sodexo must respect that as well.”
Curtis Adkins has worked at the College in various dining positions for over four decades. He is hoping to finally secure a pension.
“If I was set with the pension… I’d have something to back me up, to comfort me and help me through to get where I got to go until my Social Security check — I don’t have that,” Adkins said. “I have put 41 years of my life, my time and stuff into a place that I feel like I didn’t get what I needed out.”
“I have put 41 years of my life, my time and stuff into a place that I feel like I didn’t get what I needed out.”
Still, Adkins expressed a deep love for his job and the students he interacts with. He is proud to have served multiple generations of families at the College.
“The only thing that’s really keeping me there and keeping me holding on is the strength of the William and Mary students because they mean a lot to me and I mean a lot to them,” Adkins said.
That sentiment is shared by many dining workers.
“I like the job, I like serving the students, I like rapport with the students,” Edwards said. “So the job itself is not hard, it’s just the management which we work for in the company is not so good.”
Beyond daily interactions in the dining halls, some students had existing relationships with Sodexo staff after raising money to support them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those connections were key in the organizing of the union. Workers like Edwards and Adkins only got involved after visits from students and union organizers explaining their goals.
According to student organizer Connor Dendler ’24, the union has helped strengthen relations with dining workers.
“A lot of student interaction with dining staff is meant to be this very structured and impersonal affair and having been taught to look beyond that has been an amazing experience,” Dendler said. “It’s allowed me to connect with people and to see that they’re the ones leading this, but we will and should support them every step of the way.”
The group spearheading the union efforts also includes professors, faith leaders and other workers from around Virginia. For weeks, those involved have been meeting at the Wesley Foundation with the permission of Campus Minister Max Blalock.
“To be in those meetings and to see the diversity of people who are coming together to make this happen: that it’s intergenerational, that it’s multiethnic, that it’s multiracial, that it’s multi-faith,” Blalock said. “It’s all of this, it’s students, it’s William and Mary staff, it’s William and Mary faculty, it’s folk from the community. You know it’s all such a coalition of people coming together. It’s like, wow we need more of this.”
Blalock was excited about the possibility of making systemic change for workers at the College. He explained that although the Wesley Foundation has provided support to some workers through the Campus Food Exchange, he can’t just provide charity without also advocating for justice.
“When we look at a history of an institution like William and Mary, you draw a straight line from enslaving people to supporting Jim Crow, racial violence and segregation, to having a 98% Black population working in your food service and not paying them a living wage and no benefits and being exploited,” Blalock said. “It’s a straight line. And if my faith doesn’t have something to say about that… then my faith is useless.”
Sanfo emphasized the legacy of abusing Black workers at the College.
“William and Mary has a history of exploiting Black labor,” Sanfo said. “We’ve done it since we literally opened. We were the first school to do it, which means that every school that came after us was copying our blueprints… we literally created that. So it’s our responsibility to undo it.”
“William and Mary has a history of exploiting Black labor. We’ve done it since we literally opened. We were the first school to do it, which means that every school that came after us was copying our blueprints.”
Despite so many others being involved in the union, it was ultimately the workers’ choice to go public when they did.
“The people were fed up,” Adkins said. “They were speaking out. They was crying. They wanted help and they couldn’t find no outlet. So they had to run to find something, to comfort them. And that was beautiful.”
Once the dining workers decided to go public, the rest of the organizers simply supported them.
“The timing is right now, honestly, the workers are really fed up with their experience that they’re having and the conditions they’re under, and they’re ready to go forward so we just followed them,” Sanfo said. “This entire work is very centered around what they want and what they need and it’s centered around them. So as a student, I’m just there to back them up.”
The formation of this union is part of a larger wave of labor organizing. At the beginning of September, UNITE HERE helped Sodexo workers at Google in Atlanta go public. Staff at Virginia Commonwealth University unionized in 2021 and some of their workers, along with those at Colonial Williamsburg, have supported efforts at the College.
These movements have surfaced after an increase in worker frustrations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the winter of 2020, dining workers at the College went on an unexpected two-month break without pay. White pointed out how Sodexo continued to profit during this period.
“Two months with no pay in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of the economic crisis, in the middle of the holidays, in the middle of winter,” they said in the rally. “That’s the company that we’re talking about here today.”
The current period of economic recession and rising prices has played a major role in decisions to form the union.
“I’m starting the union because my rent went up. It’s me, my sister, my mom — our mom. At first it was $900, like 300, 300, 300 — 900. And then they doubled our rent to 600 each,” Pressey said.
She has taken another job in response to higher costs. Pressey ultimately hopes to move to a new neighborhood with less gun violence.
News of the union has been well-received by much of the College’s dining staff.
“A lot of people are for it, which I was shocked,” Edwards said. “They want to support, but I guess some, most people don’t want to do the physical work aspect… it’s got to be somebody with a voice to tell what we want.”
While some workers have been afraid to speak up, demonstrations of community support have alleviated many fears about joining the union. In addition to the rally, organizers have been passing out stickers for students to wear in dining halls as a show of solidarity.
“I’m very, very appreciative,” Edwards said. “It’s a big eye opener to know that, okay, because you work hard, people see that you work hard… we truly are appreciative of everything. You know, it’s more shocking that y’all are helping us get more out of the company than which we work for. It speaks volumes.”
Sanfo emphasized how important students are to the workers and this movement.
“Everyone’s very excited,” she said. “I think that the workers really love seeing how many students actually stand with them. Because a lot of them are talking about how they’re here for us… So they’re very happy to see this actually come to this level to the point where it is public, people are talking about it. And students are really showing support.”
For Dendler, it has been inspiring to hear the workers’ stories and he encourages community members to continue showing up for them.
“Remember that as students, we have a lot of say with what happens here and we can band together and we can make sure that this process goes through, is successful and everybody involved gets the respect that they deserve.”
“When you build community, you are telling people that you will stick with them,” Dendler said. “Remember that as students, we have a lot of say with what happens here and we can band together and we can make sure that this process goes through, is successful and everybody involved gets the respect that they deserve.”
Members of the dining staff see this movement as a reminder of their worth and what they deserve.
“I try to keep, I guess, keep me saying, ‘Okay, well, at least I’m working, some people are not working,’ so I got to take good with the bad,” Edwards said. “I think I’m owed more. I think I’m worth more than that. So I want to be recognized and be paid according to what I do.”
The union still has a long way to go before they achieve the tangible benefits they want and they’re currently taking everything one day at a time. But members are ready to put in the work.
“I know it’s not coming overnight,” Adkins said. “It’s going to take a while, but the legacy that I leave, I want to leave it so the day will come, I can say that I’ve been here 41 years, but I just didn’t leave. But I left something to help somebody.”
To Pressey, one thing is clear.
“We need this to happen now,” she said. “We need change to happen now.”
Aiden White ’23 is a staff writer for The Flat Hat and was quoted in this article due to their organizing role.