Hollis Coates was moved to tears as she looked out at the crowd of Howard students rallying in support of her and her colleagues.
After four years since their last contract, the time had finally come for Howard University’s Sodexo dining employees to renegotiate their contracts with Sodexo and advocate for improved working conditions. Their demands were met.
Coates, a cashier at Bethune-Annex for 12 years, described feeling overwhelmed with gratitude for those who stood in solidarity with her during that time.
“I feel so overwhelmed because we won, but that’s not why I’m so overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed because of y’all sticking by us and we didn’t have to come back and fight anymore because if it wasn’t for y’all, we would have had to come back and fight again,” she said.
According to Tabitha Johnson, organizer and union representative of UNITE Here Local 23, the dining employees will now receive free single-coverage health insurance by June 2024 and an immediate raise to $18 per hour then a $7.50 raise over four years as opposed to the previous $2.20 over five years.
They will also receive an additional sick day on top of the previous eight, a 50 percent match on their 401k and a joint labor-management committee from Sodexo and the union to oversee any misconduct of the workers, according to Johnson.
Sodexo representatives declined to comment at the gathering and did not respond to subsequent requests for comment from The Hilltop.
Johnson attributes the success of the renegotiation to the student support present at the hearing.
“In my personal opinion, and in my director’s opinion, and my lead’s opinion in so many of the whole office is in agreeance with me. That deal getting done that night is because of the students,” Johnson said.
The students gathered in front of the building, despite pushback from Sodexo management and building security regarding their attendance at the hearing. The crowd of students shouted chants and embraced dining employees in the drizzling rain while waiting for a decision to be made.
Delaney Leonard, a sophomore psychology major, interdisciplinary humanities minor from Delaware, and executive board member of the DMV chapter of Students for Socialism (SFS) recalled hearing about the ongoing issues dining employees were facing and feeling compelled to do something about it.
Leonard was standing on the second floor of the building for approximately 30 minutes managing the growing crowd of students while Johnson and other members of SFS attempted to reason with building security and Sodexo management.
She eventually led the group of students from the second floor to the outside of the building and joined the rest of the students in solidarity with the dining employees.
Leonard explained that SFS had been trying to get involved with union work for some time.
“Since the beginning of the semester, we knew that engaging in union work with the cafeteria workers was something that we wanted to do,” she said. “But it wasn’t until last week that I, that we were able to actually get plugged in.”
After Leonard and other SFS members spoke with a few of the dining employees and got in contact with Johnson, they felt compelled to do something.
“We really wanted to help her get a strong student body-level of support and so we basically told her that we would do like a rapid push out on social media over the next few days… encouraging students to actually go to the hearing,” she said. “And that’s basically exactly what happened.”
SFS, a student-led organization that fights for student power and revolution, posted a call to action on Instagram encouraging students to display their support to dining employees at the hearing.
This post prompted dozens of Howard students and faculty to flock to the hearing in solidarity with the dining hall employees.
Elandrea Baker, a freshman political science and sociology major from Kansas, Missouri said that she saw the post on SFS’s Instagram and knew she wanted to show her support.
“I saw a post on Instagram about the unfair conditions and wages for the dining hall staff so I thought it’d be a fantastic way to you know get involved and show my support, especially for all the people who are super nice to us and cook all of our food,” she said.
Initially, the students began gathering in a small room directly outside of the hearing at about 5:30 p.m., however, as the number of students grew larger it became increasingly difficult to contain the students within the space. Approximately 50 students began to fill the space outside of the hearing room.
Leonard believes the student presence intimidated the Sodexo representatives and was the cause of their delayed entrance.
“They refused to look at any of us in the face. They refused to acknowledge us. They were clearly very intimidated. And they could really feel the pressure that we were giving them,” she said.
According to Leonard, the representatives had refused to join the hearing until all students had cleared the building.
Due to pushback from building security and Sodexo representatives, the students were strongly encouraged to leave the building by Johnson due to a phone call made to the police. Although students were unable to remain inside during the hearing, they made themselves heard outside.
The crowd of students and faculty began to shout a few of the following chants: “Workers’ Rights are Black Rights,” “Pay Your Workers Money, No One Should Go Hungry” and “Show Me What Solidarity Looks Like.”
Johnson said it was one of the greatest shows of solidarity she had ever seen from college students.
“I’ve never seen a show of support from students like I’ve seen like the day of the hearing and I’ve been to plenty of bargaining tables. I had a lot of meetings with employees and students. I’ve never seen a turnout like that,” she said.
This show of solidarity, however, was met with negative reactions. Shortly after the students began their protest outside, six police officers arrived at the scene at approximately 6:35 p.m.
Coates, when informed about the arrival of the police, became increasingly worried about the safety of the students and urged students to go back to school.
“And I say ‘I don’t want one of the cops to come and do something because you might step back and they might say you did something.’ So I said, ‘Just go back to school. And tomorrow I will let everybody know what happened,’” she said. “And then when I said that my babies, y’all started leaving.”
Although the students were not able to stay during the hearing their impact did not go unnoticed by dining employees.
“This contract is probably the most reasonable one that I know about, and within the 25 years that I’ve been working here,” Samuel Foster, a receiver at Blackburn University Center said. “And if it had not been for the student support, I think it would have probably been drawn out much longer.”
Copy edited by Alana Matthew