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HALIFAX—Zona Roberts is looking for a way to get her motorbike to Newfoundland. After a frustrating summer of disputes with her employers at King’s College University in Halifax, Roberts quit. This fall, for the first time in 11 years, she has not resumed her position as King’s' most beloved canteen attendant. Instead, she is heading to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to find work and spend time with her son and daughter-in-law, who are about to have their first child. Though Roberts is excited about becoming a grandmother, her departure is bittersweet. She loved the job and hoped to leave the college on more amicable terms.
“I planned to work there until I was 95,” Roberts explains. For over a decade, Roberts has been a fixture at King’s. If you spent any time in the Day Students' Lounge, you knew her. At the canteen, she knows most of the “kiddies” by name and greets them all with affection. When I talked with Roberts about her situation, we were standing outside the campus bar on the night of her goodbye party. She is a short, sinewy, almost ageless woman. At work, her grey hair is always pulled back in a hair net. Today, it is down around her shoulders and I am struck for the first time by how pretty she is. As we talk, students stream past us, stopping to kiss and hug Roberts before going down into the basement bar. From the turnout it is clear that Roberts is well loved. The students buzz around her to say their goodbyes and she makes every one promise to come visit Newfoundland and sleep on her couch. For 11 years, she has taken care of these people: she is a friend and a valued member of the King’s community.
“I know what it was like when my kids went to school,” Roberts explains, “and so I treat these kids the way I would want to have my kids treated.” Something like the mother’s golden rule, I suppose. Roberts is one of the nicest women you will ever meet. If you don’t have a reusable coffee cup, she’ll give you an earful but you’ll also get to borrow one of hers. If you don’t have enough for lunch, she’ll make up the difference by fishing quarters out of her tip jar.
“If I’m at school, I have to go to the Wardroom and visit Zona,” one student tells me, “even if I’m not buying anything.” One would think that having these sorts of relationships with her customers would make Roberts the ideal service employee. Yet, it is precisely this sort of “unprofessional” behaviour that got Roberts into trouble with her employers at King’s.
Last spring, Roberts found out that she would not be working in the canteen during the following school year. She was moved to the kitchen, where she could no longer interact with the students she loved. Though Roberts was not fired, she feels that being moved from the canteen to the kitchen was a punitive measure. For the duration of the summer, she fought to maintain her post at the canteen. She received support from then university president, William Barker, as well as the King’s Student Union, but to no avail. Finally exhausted with what she perceived to be a hostile and frustrating work environment, Roberts quit. Though she is reluctant to discuss the details of her situation, she makes it clear that she is not happy to be leaving her job.
Like most Canadian universities, King’s has adopted the practice of outsourcing its food and cleaning services in order to reduce costs. The multinational food and cleaning services company, Sodexo Inc, employs all kitchen personnel on campus. The company is based in Paris but employs over 330,000 workers in over 80 countries (of which only 13 per cent are unionized), and makes roughly $7.9 billion in annual revenue. Until a month ago, Sodexo had a monopoly on food distribution on campus. The kitchen staff at King’s is not unionized and never has been.
Outraged at the conditions of Roberts’s departure, the King’s Student Union (KSU) organized a boycott of Sodexo. “I knew that this wasn’t something that students would be okay with,” says Student Union President Gabe Hoogers. “Sodexo’s seemingly arbitrary removal of Zona from the job she worked for 11 years was completely unjust in my view and the more I spoke to students over the summer, the more I became aware of the vast support that Zona has.”
On most campuses where food services are outsourced, the food is notoriously lousy. As local and ethical food movements continue to grow, it becomes more and more apparent how out of touch service providers like Sodexo are with the student bodies they serve. However, the nature of the outsourcing contract is such that, though students and faculty are by and large the ones who consume food on campus, they are not the direct clients of the food service providers. Sodexo’s contract is with the University; their client is the administration and that is whom the company aims to please. For the most part, this means providing a no-hassle service at the lowest possible price. However, the goal of the university is to provide satisfactory services to its students, whose tuition fees and attendance are the institution’s raison d'etre.
On September 5, 2011, the boycott officially began. The KSU issued a press release and sent a letter with demands to the new University President, Anne Leavitt, and to Sodexo’s District Manager, Anne McFeteridge. Roberts became the face of the boycott, serving coffee from a rogue canteen set up in the KSU office. The KSU had two chief demands: that a student committee be implemented to give students more say in food service contracts, and that the Day Students' Lounge canteen be managed by students to “reflect students’ needs and wants, namely ethical and sustainable food.” Effectively, the KSU wanted mechanisms put in place to ensure that future students would have input into how food services are run on campus. Hopefully this would guarantee that student demands for more ethical working standards for campus employees would not be made in vain.
“We have a lot of sway with the administration,” says Hoogers. “When I advocate to the board, I advocate with thousands of students behind me.” It is a testament to the influence of students and the potential of student-based movements that the KSU’s demands were met less than two weeks after the boycott started. The KSU is now working to create a food advisory panel to oversee the 2013 renewal of Sodexo’s food service contract, and a business plan to take over the canteen is being formulated. Sadly, Roberts will not be returning to King’s. Even before the boycott began she had decided she no longer felt comfortable in the Sodexo work environment. Hoogers is optimistic that the guarantees won by the KSU will ensure that what happened to Roberts will not happen again.
This was not the first time that students have supported King’s staff in their struggle for better working conditions. However, not much has changed at the school in terms of labour practices. As I discovered, the university has a disappointing history of anti-unionism, though it is not a widely publicized one. In particular, what happened to Roberts echoes another incident that took place roughly 10 years ago, in which Sodexo staff were penalized for organizing themselves and getting too close to students.
I spoke with Darlene McNeil, who was employed as a custodial worker at King’s between 1999 and 2004. At that time, Sodexo held both the cleaning and the food services contracts at the university. When Darlene began work at King’s, there were no unionized employees on campus. She was one of eleven workers responsible for cleaning all academic buildings and dormitories, making a starting wage of roughly six dollars an hour. She described Sodexo as a “mean” employer with insidious intimidation practices. Darlene says that it wasn’t uncommon for people to cry in the workplace because of the verbal abuse they’d received from their superiors. Darlene explained that Sodexo employees receive pay increases on an individual basis, as opposed to having wages rise in yearly increments. As she explained, this allowed management to play favoritism or settle scores with workers.
The work was physically strenuous and the pay was lousy, but there were other reasons to like the job.
Like Roberts, Darlene explains that she and the other mostly female custodians were in it for the students. In those days the cleaners were still responsible for tidying dormitory rooms. This made for a lot more contact between cleaners and students and bonds inevitably formed. Echoing Roberts almost word for word, Darlene explained that she tried to treat the students the way she wanted her kids to be treated in their first year away from home. She says she can’t remember the number of times she brought students soup when they were sick or listened to them recount their problems. The relationship was reciprocal: students would bake her a cake on her birthday, and invited her to meet their parents and attend their graduation ceremonies.
The students were also supportive of the cleaners when they began to speak out against the unfair treatment they received in the workplace. In November 2001, The Watch, King’s campus magazine, published an expose on Sodexo’s mistreatment of their workers and encouraged students to take action. “Stifling unionization, strategically laying off workers, and paying disgracefully low wages—these are not practices that King’s students should be supporting—but we do...As students, we are the clients of Sodexo, and we have a right and an obligation to ensure that their employment practices reflect our values.”
“We must take responsibility,” reads an open letter from the editor, “They need our support.” The student union executive echoed this sentiment and quickly began organizing in support of the cleaning staff. According to an anonymous Sodexo worker quoted in one Watch article from November 2001, Sodexo managers were worried by the mounting student support and told cleaning staff not to speak to students, in order to prevent things from getting “blown out of proportion.” That spring, when Darlene and some of the other cleaning staff started a union drive at King’s, the student body mobilized to support them, even going so far as to contact a union on their behalf. The cleaners also received support from some faculty members and residence advisors, including one man who allowed them to host organizing meetings in his dormitory apartment.
Before an official vote could be made, a certain percentage of union cards would need to be signed, at which point the prospective union could present the demand for unionization before the Department of Labour, where it would be put to vote. Darlene recalls that it took some convincing before all 11 cleaners signed their cards. Many of the women had worked at King’s for 20 or more years and feared the loss of their livelihoods.
At the time, Darlene worked both in the kitchen and as a custodial worker. As the drive gained momentum, she says that she started to be assigned the worst jobs in the kitchen, such as cleaning the floors on her hands and knees. She describes this as a common tactic used by Sodexo to break union drives. The managers would get more neutral employees to assign punitive tasks to those who were seen as troublemaking. Darlene and the other cleaners tried to get the kitchen workers to sign union cards, but she says there was a culture of fear there too strong to penetrate. Darlene recalls that the head chef and kitchen manager at the time had a way of playing favourites and pitting workers against each other. Workers were threatened with termination during the drive, and Sodexo brought in “a guy from Toronto,” as Darlene described him, to stand over them as they punched in and out of work. Those who did sign cards were ostracized, while others were rewarded for siding with management. Darlene recalls that Roberts, for example, was supportive of the organizers but feared losing her job and would not sign a card. Sadly, she would later be subject to these same intimidation tactics, which ultimately forced her to leave the job she loved.
Despite all this, the cleaners persisted and eventually won. On January 11, 2002, after the 11 workers voted unanimously in favour of the union, Sodexo sent a letter to the union stating its recognition of the house-cleaners as members of Local 968 of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). From 2002 until the spring of 2004, the Sodexo cleaners won some wage increases (the starting wage increased from six to nine dollars) and job quality guarantees. During that time only one grievance was filed, in regard to wage disparities amongst the workers. Other than that, things were pretty quiet.
In the spring of 2004 however, the short-lived union experiment came to an end at King’s, when Sodexo lost the cleaning contract and the entire cleaning staff was laid off.
What exactly happened with the Sodexo contract, and whether or not this was an intentional attempt to squash the spirit of unionism on campus, is subject to some debate. Antioni Wysocki was one of the cleaners who lost his job that spring. He now works at Dalhousie and is president of NSUPE Local 21, which represents all custodial, trades and security employees on campus. He suspects that Sodexo’s loss of the cleaning contract resulted from some collusion between the company’s management and King’s administration. Wysocki explained that Sodexo had always lost money on cleaning contracts. He says it was common knowledge at the time that Sodexo had been unofficially bound to take the contract because it came bundled with the more lucrative food contract. Thus, it would be doubly beneficial for Sodexo to lose the contract: they would no longer have to provide a low revenue-grossing service and could eradicate the trouble-making union presence on campus.
It was customary for Sodexo to lay off its employees over Christmas and summer vacations. They might keep a couple of people on for basic maintenance, but the staff was significantly downsized. Though there was no promise that they would be rehired when school resumed, many of the staff had operated on that assumption for years. Now the cleaning staff, some of whom had been working at King’s for over 20 years, were told that there were no longer jobs for them at King’s.
It just so happens that this incident coincided with Spring graduation ceremonies. The KSU offered to organize a demonstration in support of the house-cleaners. It would have been a perfect time to draw attention to the issue, since campus would be buzzing with students and their parents. However, McNeil says that she and the other house-cleaners were unwilling to disturb the ceremonies. “It was their big day,” says McNeil warmly. McNeil attended the graduation ceremonies and says she was touched to see at least one faculty member sporting a “We support the House-Cleaners” pin. Other than that the issue was sidelined.
Both Wysocki and McNeil expressed dissatisfaction with the way the IUOE handled the incident at King’s. She says that she would not necessarily have chosen to organize with the IUOE, but that it wouldn’t have been right to reject the union that the KSU had contacted on the cleaners’ behalf. Wysocki explains that a big international union like the IUOE, whose membership consists mostly of skilled trade and craft workers, would not necessarily be invested in the struggle of 11 untrained blue-collar workers. Wysocki feels that the union failed the King’s cleaners just when it was most needed. He believes that more could have been done for the workers who lost their jobs but that, for whatever reason, the union was not willing to fight for them. That summer, everything lost momentum. With students no longer around to make a fuss, the issue receded from the public eye.
The IUOE did attempt to speak with Sodexo, but Darlene says the company would not return their calls. Then, following up on a promise made by President Barker that the old Sodexo employees would be first in line for jobs with the new cleaning company, Darlene tried contacting Sodexo, but they wouldn’t return her calls either. McNeil says she cried for weeks after losing her job. She felt terrible for encouraging her fellow-workers to unionize, since it had now cost them their jobs. She was also heartbroken to be leaving the students she loved, and says “it felt like losing a family.”
While it is clear how Sodexo could have benefited from losing the contract, the more difficult question is why King’s would want to do away with such valued and dedicated employees. In response to student backlash, the school administration claimed that it was not their responsibility to enforce employment standards on the companies they outsourced to. At the time, the university had a contractual obligation to its board of governors to choose the lowest-cost solutions with regard to service provision. Following this practice, called “tendering,” the university reviews a series of proposals before signing a contract with the most cost-efficient bidder. In the past, Sodexo had been all but guaranteed the contract. However, now that Sodexo had to pay unionized employees, they could no longer offer cleaning services at a low enough price.
University President William Barker was quoted in a September 2004 issue of The Watch, saying, “The reason that the company can offer [its services] at a lower price is because they do business their way...it’s not up to us to dictate conditions of employment.” Essentially, the administration was happy to relinquish responsibility for any employee mistreatment that took place on campus, so long as services continued to be delivered at the lowest possible costs.
However, soon after the 2004 incident, King’s changed its tendering policies. According to one King’s employee who asked to remain anonymous, the university realized it had to change its “race to the bottom” policy after the company hired to replace Sodexo provided such unsatisfactory services. According to this source, the current contract criteria favours environmentally-friendly cleaning services. This source also wondered why, if the university was willing to impose its environmental ethics on outsourcing companies, King’s would not hold its business partners to ethical standards when it comes to labour practices.
Although the university does not have an explicit anti-union policy, they support anti-union practices by refusing to hold their subcontractors accountable to decent employment standards. As it happens, Novacos, the company that secured the cleaning contract in 2004, rotated their employees to different locations throughout Halifax, making it difficult for them to organize or become acquainted with other workers or students at King’s. Despite this obstacle, the Novacos workers did organize with the Service Employees International Union. And yet again, King’s chose not renew its contract with Novacos and terminated all unionized employees.
What it comes down to is a question of community. In the same Watch article quoted above, King’s Bursar Gerry Smith is quoted saying, “What we’re seeing is a lobbying for people whom [faculty and staff] see to be in relationship with King’s, when actually they were in relationship with Sodexo.” What Smith articulates is a vision of the King’s community divided on the basis of who employs who. Though campus food providers and custodial workers spend as much or more time on campus than students and faculty, they are often overlooked when considering who makes up the “we” of the university. Like the administration Smith represents, he sees only contractual relationships and overlooks the genuine connections that develop between people who live and work beside each other on a day-to-day basis. In order to continue mistreating their workers, Sodexo relies on the fact that most of their business partners are, like Smith, willing to deny or overlook outsourced workers.
But the King’s cleaners and food services employees are part of the university community, regardless of who employs them. The reason students are willing to rally around Zona Roberts is because they love and know her. The same was true of the custodial workers from 2004.
Darlene loves working with students, at King’s and at her current position at Saint Mary’s University. She says being exposed to so many young people from such diverse backgrounds “keeps you young.” She can’t understand why Sodexo would want to punish employees for forming these relationships. “I don’t see a damn thing wrong with that, I don’t see what they’re afraid of.”
Perhaps it’s that they recognize the strength in numbers.
“As the Zona example illustrates,” Hoogers says, “it’s best when people have your back.”
With the significant exception of food service employees, all campus employees at Dalhousie University are employed directly by the university and are also unionized. King’s faculty and facilities workers are not unionized but are promised the same wage and benefit terms offered to employees working their equivalent position at Dalhousie. However, this means that King’s workers did not have recourse to collective bargaining or grievance processes.
McNeil and others hope that King’s will reconsider hiring in-house cleaning staff. In the past, the university claimed that size is what prevents them from hiring in-house workers. Indeed, King’s has recently been in serious financial trouble, running an almost $1 million deficit in 2009. But does this justify small-scale austerity measures such as union busting?
“There has been a culture that really attempts to break unions on campus,” says Hoogers. “It’s hard to say what Sodexo workers will want to do now. I think with the boycott it is made clear that Sodexo workers have the support of students. We think they do an excellent job. And if they do decide to unionize they will have the full support of students. We will do everything in our power to ensure that their rights are protected.”
In the past, every attempt made to change the way that outsourced services are provided at King’s has lost momentum, largely due to student turnover. One year there might be an active student union dedicated to progressive issues, but when they step down there is no guarantee that their successors will pursue these issues with the same dedication. The hope is that if the administration makes good on its promise to the KSU, then the infrastructure will be put in place to ensure that students have more say when it comes to food and cleaning services. If students prioritize workers’ rights as something they want to pressure the administration to improve, then this can lead to better working conditions at King’s. But without being certain that student support is there and that the administration is listening, we can’t blame the Sodexo workers for not wanting to speak out against their lousy employer. McNeil says that the 2004 incident made her all the more aware of what was at stake when organizing in the workplace. She works three jobs and understands what a crippling blow it can be to lose one’s livelihood.
But perhaps there are reasons to be hopeful about the labour situation at King’s. This past year, a new union was ratified on campus, the first since 2002. The King’s Tutors and Teaching Fellows, most of whom run tutorials with first-year students in King’s Foundation Year Program, are now organized with the Canadian Association of University Teachers. I spoke with Cory Stockwell, a tutor at King’s who was active in organizing the union at King’s. The tutors did not invite faculty to join their union because they felt that as contract workers, the tutors would have different employment concerns than permanent faculty. He says that for the most part, the tutors love their jobs but decided to organize on principle.
“The desire to unionize came from a basic belief that we should have a say in the terms of our employment,” says Stockwell. Right now, they are the only union on campus, but perhaps they will be able to foster more labour consciousness amongst students and faculty, in order to pressure the administration into amending its practices.
Ella Bedard is a recent graduate of King’s.
This article was originally published by the Halifax Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.