A delegation of U.S. food service workers flew to the Paris headquarters of their employer Sodexo last winter, delivering petitions against the company’s anti-union practices. They also took to the streets, joining French food service workers in the general strike rippling through the country. For one of the Americans, a member of Service Workers United, the act of solidarity abroad would have been a breach of contract back home.
UNITE HERE and the Service Employees (SEIU) had formed the joint union called Service Workers United, or SWU, in 2005. In secret talks with multinational food service giants Sodexo, Compass, and Aramark, the new union traded a lot—including workers’ right to strike—for contracts in a low-wage, hard-to-organize industry dominated by the “Big 3.” Aramark dropped out of the talks, but made a separate pact later that year.
To seal the unprecedented deals, contract standards were settled before the first worker signed a card. Workers faced termination if they slowed down or picketed. Conflicts over terms of the agreement would go before a national labor-management committee instead.
The companies, which have contracts to run cafeterias and concessions in schools, stadiums, and corporate offices, reserved the right to choose where the union would organize, and how many total members could join.
Sodexo capped organizing at 11,000 workers and Compass at 20,000 through 2008. Despite that, federal filings show that the union had just 6,000 members last year.
The Big 3 scattered approved organizing sites across the country and forced the union to pull the plug on other drives. The union could reject a site management selected, but it would still count against the quota. The companies also established separate expiration dates for each shop, atomizing members’ bargaining power.
Four years later, the deals with management have collapsed, UNITE HERE and SEIU are embroiled in conflict, and restless food service workers aren’t waiting for distant leaders to come to their rescue.
As lead negotiator in the 2005 talks, then-UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor fashioned a national “boilerplate” contract for all SWU members. The new union, christened UNITE HERE Local 2552, set up in the International’s Manhattan headquarters. The office opened a “Workers’ Resource Center,” an 800 number workers were to call for step two grievances. The “national local” assigned each worksite a representative from the nearest UNITE HERE or SEIU local to work with stewards and bargain contracts.
Since details went public last year, the SWU deal has been used to both exalt and disparage organizing-by-partnership models. “We’re dealing with companies that don’t make decisions in our community; they make decisions in their central offices,” said Raynor, in a union video. “And the union has got to have the scope and power to match up with that company.”
Jim Dupont, a former SWU negotiator and now head of UNITE HERE’s Laundry and Food Service division, says SWU’s terms curtailed workers’ ability to fight the boss. “SEIU’s definition of partnership is you do what the company wants,” he says. “Our definition is, you’re treated as an equal.”
After the 2005 deal was struck, hundreds of workers like Daqwell Carrasquillo got called into meetings with their employers where SWU organizers asked them to sign union cards. Now a steward at Blue Cross Blue Shield’s cafeteria outside New York City, Carrasquillo said workers eagerly agreed, and days later had a first contract modeled on the national template. It included job security and seniority language, wage increases, health care, and pensions.
It was an improvement from the non-union days, but well below the standards of other unionized food service workers.
At Chicago’s UNITE HERE Local 1, food service contracts are “very much a work in progress,” according to organizers. Their stronger contracts peg starting pay at $13 an hour. A hundred SWU members at a DePaul University cafeteria, meanwhile, start at $9.25. Under the 2005 deal, companies agreed to pay members at least 50 cents above minimum wage.
Before SWU was formed, UNITE HERE Local 100 represented about half of Aramark food service workers in New York City. President Bill Granfield viewed SWU with cautious optimism. “We didn’t expect SWU members to fall in and hit our standards right away, but we were going to get a bunch more people in,” he said.
The crown jewel of Local 100 contracts, full family health coverage, is a far cry from what their fellow members at SWU have achieved. New York’s SWU members, with salaries around $20,000, pay monthly contributions of up to $400 for family plans.
Four years later, standards nationwide haven’t risen, and the merits of SWU are under fire from members. Carrasquillo and his co-workers haven’t had a raise since 2007, and when they violated the SWU agreement by leafleting outside work for better terms, the company called police.
Now in talks over a second contract, Carrasquillo says the company won’t budge. “Sodexo is cocky,” he says. “They come right out and tell us SWU already agreed to boilerplate contracts, and we can’t change it. But I never voted on anything.”
Granfield says his local planned to break out of the template agreements but SWU leaders haven’t supported his bid. “The local negotiations have been totally limited by the framework at the top,” he says. “We wanted to make strides in second contracts, but that was not SWU’s program. That’s when we started getting angry.”
UNITE HERE’s conventional contracts with Aramark were expiring in late 2007, right as the union and company bargained a new national agreement for SWU. SEIU joined UNITE HERE in a nationwide campaign: strikes erupted in Granfield’s New York local, as well as at UNITE HERE shops in Vancouver, Ontario, and Boston, adding leverage to the SWU talks. SEIU pushed new organizing drives against the company.
Soon after, in summer 2008, Raynor struck an organizing deal with Aramark that UNITE HERE leaders criticize. Dupont says he was kept out of the room while Raynor allowed the company to maintain control over new organizing, forcing SEIU to interrupt an Aramark drive in Houston.
Raynor’s Aramark deal—which later fell apart—added fuel to burning divisions within the union that blew up in March, when he pulled 100,000 members out of UNITE HERE and into an affiliation with SEIU.
But the feuders remained attached at the hip by their joint union, and haven’t accepted a mediator’s proposal to settle food service jurisdiction geographically.
SWU’s leadership is now a part of UNITE HERE only in name. Its two appointed leaders, one from SEIU and one from UNITE HERE, both supported the March exodus. They’ve been reassigning servicing of SWU members to SEIU locals, strengthening the Service Employees’ presence in the industry. Currently, UNITE HERE claims 60,000 food service members nationwide—SEIU has far fewer.
There’s emerging anger in the ranks about SWU. After Carrasquillo filed five grievances through SWU’s call center that weren’t resolved, he picked up the phone again, joining national conference calls with other SWU members two years ago. At UNITE HERE’s June convention he presented a petition signed by 1,000 members demanding a SWU bill of rights. The call for local control, elected leaders, and an end to backroom deals passed, but has no binding effect.
SWU leaders say no national deals currently exist (Compass and Sodexo have failed to give permission for new units), and that the UNITE HERE split has disrupted attempts to resume talks with the Big 3 over new card check arrangements.
They echo SEIU’s call for a settlement so companies can no longer use the rift as an excuse to keep dues in escrow, stall contract talks, and block new organizing. UNITE HERE leaders have sued over the split, willing to pursue a protracted legal process.
“If it takes a long time stop the growth of this corporate unionism, then so be it,” says Dupont.
Raynor calls SWU the most successful private sector organizing project labor’s seen in years—and a model for the future. SWU President Kurt Edelman says the union is mobilizing members (dozens just met in D.C. to lobby for a child nutrition bill) while organizing new ones. Acknowledging lagging contract standards, he hastens to add: “They’re better than what people would get without a union.”
UNITE HERE blasts that idea, pointing to its approach to hotel chains, where a coordinated campaign of strikes and mobilization won new card checks—and contracts that didn’t drag down industry standards.
Four years ago, UNITE HERE and SEIU were on the same page. They left the AFL-CIO, signing partnerships with food-service CEOs soon after. SWU, Dupont says, actually sprang from Wilhelm’s idea to combine the two unions’ efforts at common, institutional workplaces.
But what to do once the deal was signed divided the unions. UNITE HERE leaders saw SWU as a temporary project and claim the two unions had agreed to phase it out. Raynor and Stern want to preserve SWU and the employer-approved approach that gave it legs. Now, UNITE HERE intends to make sure that SWU doesn’t expand.
“We’re not going to let them enter this jurisdiction and be the company’s favorite cheap alternative,” Dupont says. “They want to be the Wal-Mart of unions.”