Buzzsaw first wrote about the troubling treatment of the workers of Sodexo, the company that Ithaca College contracts for its dining services, last Spring, in these two articles by Upfront Editor Alyssa Figueroa (April 2010 article, May 2010 article). The Ithacan, Ithaca College’s student newspaper, published an additional piece last week (“Dining workers seek improvement from Sodexo,” by Elizabeth Sile). Now, Topher Hendricks, who worked alongside Figueroa last year to begin Students Support IC Dining Service Workers, is continuing to spearhead the cause, working with IC Human Rights and Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity student group. In a Facebook note written Monday, Oct. 25, reprinted with permission in full by Buzzsaw the same day, Hendricks responds to The Ithacan’s coverage of the issue.
In Response to “Dining Workers Seek Improvements from Sodexo”:
I commend The Ithacan for addressing this controversial issue. I recognize that when funded by the college, it can be difficult for a student publication to tackle topics that could tarnish the image of the Ithaca administration. However, it seems that the administration has already done enough to tarnish its reputation on its own accord. President Rochon’s repeated response is that because dining service workers on the Ithaca College campus are Sodexo employees, rather than the direct employees of the college, it is none of our business whether or not they earn “the living wage standards that we pay every single college employee.”
Using the fact that the workers are subcontracted is no excuse for complacency. It is very much so our business to ensure the well-being of every employee on this campus. President Rochon’s apparent apathy is, in actuality, deliberate irresponsibility. He said that “neither Ithaca College nor [the students] are empowered to set those conditions [of Sodexo’s contract with the college].” If we are unable to change the details of the contract to represent a sense of basic human morality, then the standards of whom IC contracts with need to be raised. Choosing an ethical company to run our dining halls is the responsibility of the administration. President Rochon and the rest of the Ithaca administration’s lack of morality and accountability brings shame to this great institution of higher learning. We contract Sodexo; they do not contract us. We are their clients; we are the ones with the power in this capitalist relationship. If they continue to abuse that privilege to serve us, it is our job to either force them to improve their standards or kick them out completely.
Perhaps Brian McAree, vice president of student affairs and campus life, has not found evidence that Sodexo has violated Labor Relations Board rules or American law (if you are unfamiliar with the Wagner Act of 1935, I urge you to read it), but that means he hasn’t searched very hard for such evidence. Multiple employees have alleged being illegally intimidated during a former unionization campaign, in addition to more recent verbal abuse and even physical violence. I commend the article in The Ithacan for talking to Sodexo employees, who were brave enough to speak out, even though doing so threatens their employment. The article neglected to mention, however, that union organizer Calvin Ott is a former Sodexo employee. When he and his fellow workers at Nazareth College unionized, his life changed so much for the better that he became a union organizer to help others improve their lives in the same profound way. It’s difficult for workers to speak out about being abused by their employer because of the fear of retaliation from management or the prospect of losing their job.
Sodexo public relations director Alfred King’s statement in The Ithacan’s article is a prime example of the attitude that the company has towards its workers. He says that two-thirds of Sodexo’s employees make a living wage. This implies that it’s perfectly fine that one third of their employees will live below the poverty line while working a full-time job with Sodexo (a company with an operating profit that increased 8.1% last year to well over a billion dollars). Many Sodexo workers that I’ve spoken with have said that the money they make in 40 hours or more a week is not enough to live on (remember that many of these workers are laid off for the summer months).
Do the math: if you make $8.19 an hour, at 40 hours a week, for 40 weeks a year (if you’re laid off during the summer months when the dining halls are closed), that comes to a mere $13,104 before taxes. Many of these workers qualify for Medicaid, food stamps and other forms of welfare and public assistance. It’s sadly ironic that the employees of a food service company don’t make enough to provide food for their families, and could easily be recipients of Sodexo’s feeble philanthropy efforts.
It’s not just at Ithaca, either. Sodexo employs abominable practices around the world. Even if it wasn’t the case here, how can we continue to support a company that behaves as such? If they abuse people elsewhere, why should we turn a blind eye here?
I am not advocating either for or against a union. That is a decision that should be left to the workers. Not the administration, not the management, but the ground-level workers in our dining halls. I am advocating responsibility. Our contract with Sodexo expires next year, and I challenge the administration to make a responsible and moral decision. Changing the practices of Sodexo is not just a passing fad for students, as President Rochon suggested it was to members of the IC Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity. This is a matter of human dignity, decency, and morality. Since Sodexo says in their Annual Report that “humanity is at the heart of [their] business,” let’s help them live up to their professed standards.
I am appalled at President Rochon and the administration’s dehumanizing and disrespectful attitude towards these hard-working people. I know I am not alone when I ask that Ithaca College enact a promise to guarantee that all employees of the school, whether directly or indirectly through subcontractors, are paid a living wage and are treated with respect. President Rochon was responsible for ensuring a living wage for every other group of employees on campus, so why not these hard-working people? Perhaps we are not able to set the specific conditions of Sodexo’s operations, but IC is certainly able to set the conditions of who the school hires. I hope that Mr. Rochon and the rest of the administration will agree to adopt a code of conduct to ensure fair wages and fair treatment for workers in our dining halls.
I believe in the American Dream. I believe that if you work hard, you deserve to earn enough to put food on the table. I’m sorry that Sodexo does not feel the same way for a significant portion of its employees. I’m sorry that the people who work so hard to serve me everyday have to struggle so much. And as an unfortunate reflection of our institution, our alumni, and our students, I’m sorry that President Rochon has chosen a path of apathy and ignorance.
Ithaca College, Class of 2012