Emory Students Occupy Building over Cafeteria Workers’ Rights

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(APN) DECATUR — About 150 students occupied the Administration Building at Emory University on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, for several hours.

The students later left after numerous police arrived on the scene and threatened to arrest them, while the Administration agreed that the students could have a meeting with Emory University President James Wagner.

That meeting occurred at 5pm today, Thursday, April 21.

The topic of the meeting was the alleged mistreatment of Emory University cafeteria workers by the Sodexo corporation.

Students want the university to end its contract with Sodexo.  They are open to a new corporation coming in to replace Sodexo, but they have drafted a workers’ rights resolution that they want the university to adopt for any subcontracted employees.

The protest was organized by Students and Workers in Solidarity, an informal student group at Emory.

Speakers at yesterday’s protest included State Sen. Vincent Fort and Isaac Farris, Jr., the nephew of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We entered at approximately 115pm yesterday.  We kept the hallways clear so that people could conduct their normal everyday business,” Emiko Soltis, 27, a graduate student in human rights and social movements, an interdisciplinary program, told Atlanta Progressive News in an interview.

“They asked us not to sing and we did, that is probably the only rule we broke.  We sang We Shall Not Be Moved and Which Side are You On,” Soltis said.

“We were asked to leave at 6 o’clock, we were warned by the Dean of Campus Life, John Ford, leave or face consequences which may include conduct violations,” Soltis recalled.

“When we refused, we were told that Dekalb County police had arrived and they were going to give us notice to leave the building or something to that effect,” Soltis said.

“The police entered the conference room where we all were.  That was a woman who was kind, she said we needed to leave; we stayed.  Then they sent numerous cops with those wrist-tie things and they started marching up,” Soltis said.

“They [administration] offered us a meeting.  They offered us, you guys can leave because you are having a meeting,” Soltis said.  “Everybody left, no one was arrested.”

“They had sent seven police cars, fifteen policemen, and a prisoner transport van.  Emory said it wasn’t safe in the building.  When we asked if county jail was safer they didn’t respond,” Soltis said.

David Payne, a spokesman for the University, confirmed with APN that the President was meeting with the students this afternoon.

“At the heart of our protest, there is two tiered system of worker protection and rights on our campus,” Soltis said.

“Emory’s position is they can subcontract the responsibility of workers.  Because people are contracted, the men and women who serve food on this campus are not the responsibility of Emory even though they have the name Emory on their uniforms.  For that reason, Emory says they have no responsibility for how those workers are treated, and that’s what we’re protesting,” Soltis said.

“Our goal is to end the contract with Sodexo, because of… human rights abuses by Sodexo all over the world.  We’ve proposed a labor code of contract that would apply to all contracted and subcontracted workers,” Soltis said.

As a result of the protest, the administration has shut down its building to the general public.

“They’re not letting any members of the Emory campus into the building unless they have a specific documented reason to meet with someone,” Soltis said.

In response to the students’ concerns, Payne provided APN with a copy of a letter President Wagner sent to Alex Zavell, one of the student organizers.

“Thank you for your letter sent on 6 April on behalf of SWS,” Wagner wrote.  “That letter… has drawn Emory’s attention to the ongoing disagreement between two very large organizations, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Sodexo, Inc.”

“On one side of the debate, SEIU alleges instances of abuse by Sodexo of its employees–such as human rights violated, workers dismissed without cause, reprisals levied for labor organizations, and overwork for substandard wages.  Sodexo responds that such allegations are not true and are part of an ongoing smear campaign by SEIU,” Wagner wrote.

“For its part, Sodexo has brought a suit against SEIU, charging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, alleging that SEIU has engaged in blackmail, vandalism, trespassing, harassment, and violations of lobbying law.  Sodexo asserts that SEIU uses students and front organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops to help assert its positions,” Wagner wrote.

“The crux of the issue appears to stand at the intersection of the competing interests of two giant organizations: on the one hand, SEIU’s interest in breaking more fully into representation of food service workers on university campuses; and, on the other hand, Sodexo’s wish to preserve its reputation and position of leadership in the food service industry,” Wagner wrote.

“For us at Emory, as an ethically engaged community, two questions arise.  The first is whether food service workers employed by Sodexo at Emory are treated fairly and have the right and freedom to unionize without being intimidated or threatened.  The second, broader question is how to best weigh competing claims about activities beyond our campus,” Wagner wrote.

“With regard to the first question, from what we have been able to determine, Sodexo does not engage in practices that block employees from the opportunity to vote in secret through the federally sanctioned NLRB process.  Sodexo’s employees have avenues available to them if they have grievances–specifically, Sodexo’s human resources department and the NLRB.  Nor have we found evidence that Sodexo workers on the Emory campus are subject to systemic violations of either Emory’s code of ethics or Sodexo’s own internal policies,” Wagner wrote.

“With regard to the second question, concerning claims levied by Sodexo and SEIU about activities beyond our campus, our judgment is that the unresolved charges and counter-charges do not warrant terminating Sodexo’s contract on the Emory campus,” Wagner wrote.

(END / 2011)

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