Oct. 24, Sodexo dining workers at the College of William and Mary announced they won their union with Sodexo. Now a recognized union, the Sodexo workers will begin contract negotiations in hopes of securing higher wages, affordable health insurance, pensions and better hours and working conditions.
The dining services staff publicized their plans to unionize in September, but have been organizing underground with the help of the labor union UNITE HERE! since January. Sarah Zidlicky ’24 has worked at The Daily Grind and Commons Dining Hall on campus and has been part of the organization effort since April 2022.
“What you have to do to get a union going is sign people up,” Zidlicky said. “So you get a majority of workers signed up, and then as soon as you have 50% plus one you can win a union. So that was, for starters, getting everything recognized was just getting people signed up. Which I mean, we reached a majority in two days, which was pretty unprecedented.”
The students of the College showed up to support the workers, rallying on the Sadler Center terrace on Sept. 21 and calling for Sodexo to “respect our campus” and “respect our dining workers.”
Zidlicky commended the extensive support from students and workers in helping underscore the importance of the union when it came time to be recognized by Sodexo. They noted that the success of the union led to an agreement of neutrality — meaning Sodexo agreed not to oppose the organization’s efforts.
“The showing up and showing out that students and workers did, it gave us so much power,” Zidlicky said.
The College’s Sodexo workers are part of a larger national trend of worker organization in 2022. As of Sept. 30, the National Labor Relations Board has seen 2,510 union representation petitions filed in Fiscal Year 2022 — this is an increase of 53% from 1,638 petitions in Fiscal Year 2021. The 2022 unionization wave has tapped household names like Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joe’s, but has also had a significant impact on Sodexo workers across the United States.
Melanie Edwards, a late-night supervisor for Sodexo and a dining employee at the College for over 20 years, felt this cross-community unionization as she worked with UNITE HERE! and spread the word about their campaign.
“We represent the company. We’re doing the heavy load of the company. So they have to respect us at some point. And I think people are just getting fed up with it.”
“I realized, like, okay, it’s not just happening here in Williamsburg,” Edwards said. “It’s happening all over. So I think companies, they get away with a lot and they’re not respecting their workers. And they’ve got to realize that workers are part of the company. You know, we represent the company. We’re doing the heavy load of the company. So they have to respect us at some point. And I think people are just getting fed up with it.”
Sodexo is a food services and facilities management company that currently works in 55 countries and was founded in the 1960s in France.
“Sodexo respects the right of our employees to choose to be represented by the union, proven by the hundreds of CBA’s we have in good standing with unions across the country — including with Unite Here. We have reached an agreement with Unite Here to recognize it as the employee’s representative,” a representative of Sodexo U.S. wrote to The Flat Hat.
Within the past couple months, multiple subsects of Sodexo workers have gone public with plans to unionize — including dining staff at Loyola University New Orleans and cafeteria workers at Google in Atlanta. Other existing Sodexo unions — like Lufthansa Lounge workers at Newark Liberty International Airport and House of Representatives Food Service workers in Washington D.C. — are picketing for new contracts and better wages.
Kevin Hollins has worked as a catering driver for Sodexo at Howard University since 2012 and is a shop steward for the UNITE HERE! Local Union 23 of Sodexo workers at Howard. Hollins has been traveling down to Williamsburg from D.C. for the past year to help Sodexo workers at the College organize.
“I played a role as an organizer as well as a face that they can look to as a Sodexo worker,” Hollins said. “I basically went and knocked on people’s doors and talked to the workers that we couldn’t catch at work. Myself and a group of other people, you know, we all went out as a team and we talked to workers and we told them our stories because I think stories are very important when you’re organizing new shops, especially people who’ve never been organized.”
Hollins spoke to the current uptick in worker unionization across America and how the happenings at the College fit into this national union arena. He explained how a lot of food service worker union contracts in the Washington D.C. area will be up for re-negotiation in 2023. This will mark 10 years since many food service workers in the city negotiated their last major contracts and held the “We Feed DC. We Are D.C.” rally in 2013.
“A lot of the contracts are up in 2023, different months, but a lot of the Sodexo contracts are up in D.C.,” Hollins said. “A lot of food service workers’ contracts are up in D.C. The union kind of, like, planned it like this so we all can be fighting at the same time. To show our power, to show our unity and to let all the other food service workers know, like, you’re not in the fight alone. Like, we are all brothers and sisters in this fight. That’s part of the reason why we came down to William and Mary and let them know, like, they’re a part of this. We want them to be a part of this.”
Now that the College’s Sodexo dining workers are officially a recognized union, they will be bargaining their contracts with Sodexo management. In these upcoming contract negotiations dining workers will be advocating for higher wages, better working conditions, pension coverage and more affordable health insurance.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Edwards emphasized the importance of more affordable health care coverage in the contract. Edwards explained how many of her co-workers could not afford a doctor’s visit if they experienced any COVID-19 symptoms.
“We’ve lost people,” Edwards said. “We’ve lost people. I’m not talking about just, you know, family members, people who, you know, coworkers, people who worked here with us side by side. We’ve lost people. In these last two years, we’ve lost a lot of people. That’s because they didn’t want to go to the doctor, didn’t want to go get a checkup. If they were sick and they had the COVID like symptoms, they’d do home remedies. You know, it is heartbreaking.”
“They’ve given their life to the company and the company should give something back.”
Edwards also emphasized the need for wage increases — as she hopes to move out of her parents’ home and into her own place — and the need to secure pensions. Zidlicky expanded on the need for pensions as well.
“Pensions are also a really big thing,” Zidlicky said. “We have a lot of dining workers who have worked here for like 20, 30, 40 years who need to retire. Straight up, who need to retire. You know, they’ve given their life to the company and the company should give something back.”
Senior Associate Director of University News Erin Zagursky reiterated the College’s administration support for the Sodexo workers.
“William & Mary values and respects the contributions of dining staff to the university through their work with Sodexo,” Zagursky wrote in an email to The Flat Hat. “They are critical to providing the type of dining program we expect and crucial in looking after our students and campus community.”
Edwards believes the quality of service that students receive will increase now that the workers are unionized.
“They’re going to get better service and better quality food,” she said. “You know, better customer service. You’re going to get all that, I believe, once it becomes union because it’s going to be across the board.”
Hollins, as an already unionized Sodexo worker, echoed that quality of service will increase after the recent victory.
“When you bring people together for a common goal, a good common goal… people tend to produce and feel better, start to dream again, you know, start to have ambition.”
“When you bring people together for a common goal, a good common goal… people tend to produce and feel better, start to dream again, you know, start to have ambition,” Hollins said.
Hollins also shared his advice to the College’s dining workers in their upcoming contract negotiations.
“Learn how to use your power, you know, as far as in the workplace,” Hollins said. “Knowing not to let the company intimidate you, reading your contract, knowing your rights, and also knowing the company’s rights. Also because you don’t want to infringe on their rights.”
Nathan Romans, the Chapter Chair of the William & Mary Workers Union, spoke about the common goal of the Sodexo workers to the campus as a whole — saying the dining workers’ fight is the whole campus’s fight.
“Workers in the William & Mary Workers Union have been galvanized by the courage and solidarity dining workers have displayed throughout their unionization push,” Romans wrote in an email to the Flat Hat. “They stood together, fought like hell, and earned their union. And when they asked for solidarity from the campus community, William & Mary students, staff and faculty rallied to their side because fundamentally, their fight is our fight.”
Romans shared that the Sodexo workers at the College could be leading the way for broader labor change across the College’s campus.
“Dining workers have proven it’s possible to build substantial labor power on campus, now it’s on the rest of us to follow their lead and begin building the William & Mary we deserve,” Romans said.