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A New Age for Howard University Food Service Employees

Howard University food staff and Local 23 union organizers anticipate the arrival of Sodexo representatives to negotiate the terms of the current employment contract. (Mya Trujillo/101 Magazine)

On Sept. 25, Sodexo management accepted the demands of Howard University’s food service workers to increase their $17 per hour wages, 401k, vacation time, and to obtain a better healthcare plan. Labor union UNITE HERE Local 23 has supported the employees through this since last May. 

Per the compromise, members of the staff will receive a $7.50 raise over four years rather than $2.20 over five years; free single-coverage healthcare by June 1, 2024; a 50% match on their 401K; nine sick days per year instead of six; Juneteenth as a paid holiday; and a joint labor relations board with members from the union and Sodexo to monitor any mistreatment of workers. 

“I’m shocked that they came to an agreement… so early,” said Pierre Carter. He’s been with Howard’s dining services for 19 years and usually works in the Market at Annex. “I thought they were gonna drag it out for at least another couple of days.” 

Before the hearing, Carter and his colleagues were overjoyed at the number of students who had shown up in support. The fact that protesters would continue to advocate for revisions to the contract if the negotiations were unsuccessful brought immense comfort to Carter and his coworkers. 

The DMV chapter of Students for Socialism (SFS) felt students needed to attend the hearing to demonstrate their solidarity with the employees and demand management listen to the workers’ grievances, so they posted a call to action on Instagram urging students to show up and display their support. This push on social media was fruitful, as dozens of students took part in protesting for the food staff’s rights; yet, the victory didn’t come without incident, as Sodexo representatives called the police when made aware that student protesters were in the building and refused to commence the meeting until they left the premises. Union organizers viewed this as a cowardly act. 

“The intimidation and fear the Sodexo bosses demonstrated, showcases how powerful a united, mobilized student body fighting for workers’ rights is,” said Delaney Leonard, the Howard student in charge of SFS’s social media.

Howard University scholars were unimpressed with Sodexo management’s reaction to their presence. “They never could have expected a militant body of young Black students would have been there, putting heavy pressure on them to treat their workers with humanity,” said Johnson. She believes this was a great opportunity for students to comprehend their power and impact within the fight for liberation on all fronts. (Mya Trujillo/101 Magazine)  

Students began flooding into the building on K Street Northwest around 5:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the scheduled negotiation. SFS members and Tabitha Johnson of Local 23 informed Howard scholars they were not allowed to sit in on the meeting but that their presence was integral in showing Sodexo the severity of the workers’ conditions. 

Shortly after, Johnson received notice that management was in the lobby but refused to proceed to the meeting room if the protesters were inside. 

“They’re currently cowering in the corner of the lobby,” she told attendees. She crafted a plan to lead students downstairs to usher the Sodexo representatives to the hearing, emphasizing the importance of such a demonstration of unity. The youth responded eagerly, but when approximately half of the group went downstairs, security quickly forced them out of the building. At that moment, Sodexo management called the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to the scene. 

When notified of the call, Leonard wasn’t intimidated. “I knew what we were there to do. I knew we were peaceful, and I knew that regardless of police intimidation or threats from security, we were going to stand firm and demonstrate in support of the cafeteria workers no matter what,” she said. 

Howard University senior Lex Cabiness expressed her disdain regarding the situation. 

“Seeing these company representatives come in and act as if we were a threat… demonstrated to us that they are trying to take advantage of people who are not in the position to retaliate or counter them,” she said. 

Cabiness was part of the second half of the group to exit the building. Before stepping out into the rain, this group witnessed representatives entering the meeting room with their heads hung low. “They feed us!” Cabiness said scornfully. 

Once all the demonstrators were outside, they emitted a bellowed “HU! You know!” It was a roar that left the crowd surprised, yet empowered, before proceeding with various chants. “We eat, they eat,” “Don’t bite the hands that feed me,” “Workers’ rights are human rights,” and others rang through K Street for about thirty minutes. The police arrived at around 6:40 p.m.

When MPD arrived, they instructed protesters to stand behind a specific line that separated public and private property so they wouldn’t be considered trespassers. (Mya Trujillo/101 Magazine)

“I was scared for y’all,” Carter said. “We come in peace, but at the same time, we’re not gonna get pushed around because y’all didn’t do nothing. Y’all was within your rights, so me being frightened for y’all went [away] quickly.” 

He expressed that the students being there felt like a family reunion with the amount of love he felt for and from them. 

“I think it’s really important for people who come from all across the country to this institution to not just be in a Howard bubble, but to also keep in mind that we are inserting ourselves into a pre-existing community that is, in large ways, really influenced by our college so that they can support us,” said Cabiness. “We should reciprocally support them.” 

At around 7:00 p.m., some food service employees and Local 23 organizers went outside to thank the students for their hard work. They cheered and embraced before notifying the protesters that the negotiations would only be able to start once they departed from the property. The dining staff emphasized that they love their jobs because of the students and the culture they bring to the university. (Mya Trujillo/101 Magazine) 

Part of the reason Carter enjoys working in the cafeteria is that he’s intrigued by the diversity at Howard. Meeting people from places like Canada and Nigeria he says is what motivates him to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. He’s always interested in knowing about students and where they come from.  

Students say no matter when or where they decide to get food on Howard’s campus, there are service employees there to greet them with a “Hi, baby!” or a “Hey, Pumpkin!” and tell them to “have a blessed day,” as they leave. There are people who take students’ orders and serve food daily despite the issues they face in their personal lives. Students say they are an integral part of the university’s community and it’s not uncommon to receive the utmost hospitality from them in various buildings from Blackburn to Annex to the Market in West Towers.

“The entire time I’ve gone to this school, these workers have greeted me with a smile and kindness,” said Cabiness. “There’s no reason for a company with a base in one of the highest cost of living cities in the U.S. to be paying their workers $17 an hour.” 

Cabiness said she refuses to believe Sodexo doesn’t have the capacity or resources to pay its staff more, considering that many of them have worked at Howard for decades. “It’s disgraceful,” she said. 

Johnson recognizes the agreement as a “huge victory” for Howard food service employees and students. 

“We demonstrated that we will not be intimidated by their attempts at pacifying us,” she said. “Our cafeteria workers are the backbone of Howard University and should be treated as such.” 

Carter believes transparency and communication between management, the union, and staff is crucial to keep tensions low. “It’s a new age,” he said. “If there’s no communication, there’s no understanding.”

Mya Trujillo

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