The following is an interview with Lauren Elliott, an activist with United Students Against Sweatshops. Lauren organized support for a one-day strike carried out by cafeteria workers at Tulane University. The strike was one part of a larger “Clean Up Sodexo” campaign which aims to protest work conditions created by the French multi-national corporation, Sodexo. While Sodexo runs public relations campaigns about being a responsible employer, its employees face low wages and discrimination on the work site. Strike actions against the company have now spread to the University of Pittsburgh.
Billy Wharton: Tell me about the action carried out at Tulane. Why did the workers go out on strike? What are work conditions like? What do you hope to win?
Lauren Elliott: On Friday, April 23, the 50 out of 54 Sodexo employees scheduled to work in the Tulane cafeteria, Bruff Commons, went on a legal one-day strike to protest unfair labor practices committed by Sodexo — mostly intimidation and threats by management towards workers involved in organizing efforts. These workers have been organizing with the international union SEIU since last fall and would like to form a union free from intimidation from their management. Sodexo workers on Xavier and Dillard’s campus (two other universities in New Orleans) are unionized with SEIU. The main complaints from the workers regarding working conditions are a total lack of respect from management (one woman has been working for Tulane food service for 40 years and must ask permission to go to the restroom), inadequate healthcare benefits (for most employees the healthcare plan provided would cost 2 weeks of their salary), and poverty wages (almost all make below $10.00, and, again, the woman who has been here 40 years make $9.50/hour). Many workers have waited over a year for raises, only to receive a raise of $0.20 or less. Many were hired, told they could rise to management, only to realize they would be unable to do so because Sodexo would never provide training (they prefer to hire outside management).
You can find testimonials directly from workers at the website.
BW: What resistance strategies are you employing? Is this primarily a worker’s action? Are you looking to building community-labor support? How are other groups on campus reacting?
LE: Since February, students have been organizing around two demands: 1) That the workers, who are laid off over the summer, all receive a guarantee that they would have the first right to recall in the fall. This is to ensure that management does not target anyone for organizing activity. 2) That our university implement a Labor Code of Conduct that applies to all faculty, staff, contracted and subcontracted workers on Tulane’s campus. The main component of this is the right to organize free of intimidation. The workers will receive the first right of recall (although the language isn’t as strong as we would like), and the Labor Code of Conduct has been forwarded on the Social Issues Committee. Our fall campaign will focus on the implementation of the Code.
Because as tuition paying students, our power lies in pressuring our university (as opposed to Sodexo). We demand that our university hold Sodexo accountable for the same labor practices Tulane University guarantees its employees. The power is in the hands of the client, and if Tulane tomorrow said Sodexo had to change its practices or risk losing its contract, Sodexo would do so. Our campaign over the past months has involved a series of correspondence between President Cowen, rallies, marches, meetings with Sodexo management. In addition to student-planned events, we have accompanied the workers twice when they went to deliver letters to Sodexo management. Here is a video of our first action in March. You can see the letters and press coverage on our website.
Generally, groups on campus have been very supportive. We had a petition signed by 1200 students and the faculty drafted their own letter with 110 signatures, which was delivered to our president with the first letter. Faculty members are continuing to organize around the implementation of the Labor Code of Conduct. Community members and local business have also shown support through food donations for our worker appreciation BBQ.
BW: Last year there were only five strike actions carried out in the country, one of the lowest numbers since World War II. Tell our readers why you think a strike is necessary at this point?
LE: At Tulane, the strike was necessary because it was the first time the workers had the opportunity to be public, vocal, and united. Up until the strike, only a few workers had the courage to share their stories at rallies and at city council. Most feared that if they went public with their support of a union, they would [face] retaliation from management. The day of the strike they stood at the picket line and said “Look at us, we are human!” as their managers walked by. After months of silence and fear, the workers were tired of being tired. Finding courage in each other, they demanded that management see them, hear them, and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve. The first worker back on the job on Saturday told me that his manager said “Good Morning” to him for the first time ever.
BW: How can people outside of the New Orleans area contribute to your struggle?
LE: They should definitely check out the website, videos, etc., listen to the stories of the workers at Tulane. Then they could reach out to the service workers in their own area. I bet they have stories to share that have never been shared. I imagine many are also fearful to tell the truth about their working conditions. Hear their stories, build relationships, cross boundaries generally not crossed. After that, the organizing can begin.
Lauren Elliott is a member of United Students Against Sweatshops and a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans. She will be graduating this May and will continue her organizing work in New Orleans.