Why IC Dining Service workers remain quiet after Sodexo’s revised media policy
By Alyssa Figueroa
While flipping through an employee handbook, it is not unusual to find a media policy outlining the employee do’s and don’ts of speaking with the news media. Many institutions, including companies like Sodexo, a multinational corporation to which Ithaca College contracts its dining services, integrate this section into their manual. In early March, however, an unfair labor practice charge was brought up against Sodexo regarding their media policy, and it ultimately resulted in the corporation’s revision of the policy.
Marcia Snell, a Sodexo dining service worker from Ohio State University, said that as the union movement at OSU was brewing, managers posted signs reading, “Do not speak to solicitors”—a tactic she thought implied that workers could not talk to union organizers. This, as well as other factors, sparked the Columbus, Ohio, branch of the Service Employees International Union, a North American labor union consisting of more than two million members, to reevaluate Sodexo’s media policy. SEIU then decided to file an unfair labor charge against Sodexo with the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency that protects workers’ rights.
Sodexo’s former media policy (see below) included statements such as, “Do not make statements or comments to the media” and advised that workers contact their manager if “asked by the media to speak or comment on any subject.” SEIU charged that these statements “maintained rules governing its workers’ conduct that tend to chill employee Section 7 activities.” Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to organize. SEIU claimed that by maintaining these rules, Sodexo violated Section 8(a)(1) of the act, which states it is “an unfair labor practice for an employer to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees into the exercise of the rights guaranteed” to these employees.
SEIU submitted their case to the regional NLRB office in Columbus, where they investigated and found merit in the union’s charge. The NLRB then approached Sodexo, and the two reached a settlement agreement: Sodexo retained a non-admission clause, in which they did not admit to violating the act. As part of the settlement, Sodexo wrote a new media policy (see below) meant to clarify that workers could speak to the news media—they just could not speak to the news media “on behalf” of the company, something that does not ordinarily happen when workers speak out.
Sodexo’s Public Relations Director Monica Zimmer said it is important to note that the corporation’s intentions were always to allow workers to speak to the media but require them to seek approval only if speaking on behalf of the corporation.
Zimmer said, “It was brought to our attention, we took a closer look, we said, ‘OK, you can interpret this other than a way this was intended, so let’s make this crystal clear.’”
Leslie Ward, associate consul at SEIU Local 1, a regional district that includes Columbus, said regardless of intentions, wording is critical when communicating rules.
“Language means something,” Ward said. “And when you’re issuing policies to your employees, you need to be careful about what you’re saying. Here, clearly, they weren’t careful. And you can say in the aftermath what your intent was, but certainly any employee could have faced discipline for communicating with media.”
Although Sodexo’s new media policy is an improvement, some believe it is still extreme and confusing.
Hayden Schortman, SEIU organizer for Local 1, said he believes the new policy is “a step.” He said, however, “I do think the wording of the revised policy is more intense than it has to be.”
When Dylan,* an Ithaca College Dining Service worker, received the policy, Dylan said the wording was confusing. For example, Dylan said that if one doesn’t catch or understand “on the Company’s behalf” in the last sentence of the revised policy, a worker may believe they have to contact their manager once approached by the media.
Speaking about the new policy, Dylan said, “I think some of [the workers] understood it and some of them took it like, ‘It’s their way of telling us that we can’t talk to anybody about them,’ and it scared them … more than they were before.”
Alex,* another IC Dining Service worker, said the policy is not very explanatory.
“There was a lot of gray area,” Alex said. “It could mean that you can’t speak to media at all, period. It didn’t say specifically what media—if it meant the College or outside.”
The managers’ failure to explain the policy and its context did not help in clarifying this legal jargon. Workers at IC were simply handed the new policy and asked to sign indicating they have received it, a process, according to workers, known as “pre-service.” Workers said this process occurs often—a message is posted or distributed, and workers sign.
“They don’t communicate that well with any of us,” Dylan said.
Zimmer said Sodexo managers at IC handled the distribution of the policy effectively because “employees know if they have questions or concerns that they can speak with their manager.”
Two IC Dining Service workers said that managers quickly and poorly explained the policy when questioned about it.
In Ohio State University, however, Sodexo managers held a meeting in which workers could ask questions about the new policy.
OSU worker Snell said this meeting helped her understand what the new policy was and cleared up any questions she had.
Snell said, “I made my bosses read me the old policy, read me the new policy, and I said, ‘OK, so it’s changing to this, but what does it exactly mean?’”
Schortman said he believes meetings like this are beneficial because they “help define the policy.”
Although Sodexo’s new policy is intended to ensure that workers do not speak to the media only when speaking on the corporation’s “behalf,” it is difficult for workers to know their rights regarding speaking out to the media without background and explanation. While many have concerns about Sodexo, workers at IC have said they are afraid to publicly speak out.
Even if workers are aware that they legally have access to the media and other forms of speaking out, workers may be scared to risk any kind of retaliation. Their jobs are on the line—and by extension, their lives are on the line. In reality, being able to afford rent and food each month seems to outweigh the danger of voicing concerns. Sodexo appears to hold the paycheck, the control—creating only an illusion of access for these workers.
Taylor,* an IC Dining Service worker, said, “I don’t want to lose my job because I talked to somebody. … I can’t afford it.” Dylan and Alex also said they believe workers at IC are afraid of getting in trouble or getting fired if they express their issues with Sodexo.
Snell, however, allows the media to publish her full name, has been filmed and has even protested. She believes the control is actually in the workers’ hands and hopes workers realize they can access their rights. The reason Sodexo brings in billions of dollars in profits each year is because of the work their employees do—the workers hold Sodexo’s paycheck. Snell, thus, encourages others to speak out or “nothing’s going to change.”
Taylor admitted to being ready to publicly express specific grievances with Sodexo but needs to see more support from co-workers.
“I want to see changes made, but I can’t do it alone,” Taylor said.
Alex is also prepared to join more workers in speaking out.
“I would hate to lose my job,” Alex said. “But I’m willing to stick my neck out for the rights of my fellow co-workers who are afraid to do so.”
* Names of workers have been changed to protect anonymity.
Alyssa Figueroa is a junior journalism and politics major and a member of Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity (LIPS), who loves free speech. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.