One worker said he and his family had to downgrade from a house to an apartment. Another said they are playing catch-up on all their bills.
“My pap probably can’t afford to send me to junior college,” said the youngest worker at a crowded table of employees, still in their black Market Square uniforms.
To approximately 70 percent of Sodexo employees who work at Market Square, benefits cuts caused by a change in company policy have hit hard and close to home.
Last fall, TCU’s food contractor Sodexo, citing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), announced that the company would restructure its definitions of part-time and full-time employment.
The new definition of full-time employment is working an average of 30 hours a week over the entire year instead of working 30 hours a week for at least six weeks each quarter.
This change prevented some employees at Market Square, who work fewer hours during university breaks with lower student traffic, from staying classified as full-time employees.
After the change, as many as 77 TCU Sodexo workers who were previously full-time employees were reclassified as part-time workers. They lost benefits such as health care insurance and sick leave.
Ahead of a looming election on union membership, five of those employees talked to TCU 360 in a group interview about their lives and their workplace environment after the cuts took effect Jan. 1.
TCU 360 was put in contact with these employees through a local union organizer, Abraham Wangnoo, who was also a part of the interview. The employees identified as Sodexo workers at TCU and declined to provide their names or specific positions for fear of being disciplined or losing their jobs.
“Taking away the vacation and cutting the attendance points takes away more opportunities for people to get that time off work when they really need it,” Wangnoo said. “[The benefits cuts] laid the ground work in which if they wanted to terminate somebody they could get to that point faster.”
“We lost insurance, dental, vacation, sick-pay, holiday pay,” said one Dining Services employee of several years. “Everything is gone.”
Another employee said workers may come in to work sick because of fewer sick days.
Wangnoo, of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Local 1000 union, which represents food commercial and production workers in Texas and Oklahoma, said that some Sodexo employees quit after the benefits cuts were announced.
“New people haven’t been through what everyone else has been through,” Wangnoo said, “If you haven’t lost it, you don’t know what it’s like to lose it.”
Wangnoo said he felt in early February that the majority of Sodexo employees at TCU were interested in potential union representation. Momentum pointed toward a first at TCU: unionized dining services employees.
News of a Sodexo job fair at Union Grounds early last month motivated Wangnoo and the UFCW union to take action.
“We were nervous,” said Wangnoo. “We kind of thought that they [Sodexo] were going to hire in a lot of new people.”
On February 10, according to a federal document obtained by TCU 360, UFCW’s Local 1000 Union filed a petition to set up a union election for TCU’s Sodexo employees in Market Square.
Multiple Sodexo officials either could not be contacted or declined to comment if Sodexo favored or opposed a unionized workplace at TCU.
“We stand by our previous responses about the company respecting the rights of employees to unionize and will decline to discuss the ongoing events at TCU further out of respect for the process,” Stephen Miller, general manager of Sodexo at TCU, wrote in an email.
TCU Director of Communications Lisa Albert wrote in an email that the right to organize, as well as the outcome of the vote, is a matter between Sodexo and its employees.
“TCU respects the rights of Sodexo employees to decide what is best for each of them,” Albert wrote. “At the request of Sodexo management, the University Union will provide a neutral voting location.”
Sodexo and Labor
Union elections, such as the one on the 24th, are established and monitored by the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The NLRB is a federal agency tasked with conducting union representation elections and investigating charges of unfair labor practices. Located in Fort Worth, the NLRB’s Region 16 office serves most of Texas and part of Arkansas. They will oversee this election.
According to National Labor Relations Board policy, the election process for union representation must begin with a petition that shows at least 30 percent of employees are interested in a union.
NLRB officials then confirm that the agency can rule over the matter and that there is no existing labor contract barring an election.
“Our job is to attempt to maintain ‘laboratory conditions’ for a vote,” said Martha Kinard, the NLRB Regional Director for Region 16.
The phrase “laboratory conditions” commonly used in labor law circles comes from a 1948 court case emphasizing that the NLRB’s philosophy should be to serve as a neutral judge favoring neither the union nor the employer ahead of an election.
The phrase implies the agency should try to determine the “uninhibited desires of the employees.”
“We want it so employees can vote for or against the union as desired,” said Kinard.
Kinard said the employer and the petitioner, Sodexo and the UFCW respectively, agreed on an election date, election location and terms of who could vote in the election, but that the list of eligible voters is not being made public.
If more than half of the eligible Sodexo workers vote in favor of union membership, employees will be able to join UFCW’s Local 1000 union, pay dues and elect representatives to negotiate with Sodexo. Under Texas’ right-to-work status, employees are free to not join the union or pay any of its dues.
“Sodexo stands by the results of any valid secret ballot election that is monitored by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and is free of objectionable conduct,” wrote Gregory Yost, senior manager of media relations at Sodexo, in an email.
Yost also wrote that the company already works with more than 30 labor unions. He said more than 15 percent of Sodexo employees are union members through 330 collective bargaining agreements.
Wangnoo and the Market Square employees say Sodexo managers have held meetings with employees that emphasize the cons of union membership. Wangnoo says he thinks these meetings are used to paint union membership in a negative light to those without extensive knowledge of unions.
“The meetings are becoming more segregated,” said Wangnoo, “So a union supporter that’s got a lot of knowledge isn’t put into a meeting with people who have none.”
Wangnoo added that Sodexo management has encouraged employees to not talk to union organizers and “to slam the door in our face.”
“The only reason anybody got to go to anybody’s house is the union doesn’t have the access to TCU like Sodexo does,” said the Dining Services employee. “If (Wangnoo) had access to speak to the employees, there’s no need to come to their house. But he don’t have access.”
As Kinard confirmed, employers have the freedom of speech and right to express their opinions about the utility of unions in a workplace, even close to an election.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR membership organization, American employers are legally allowed to “urge employees to vote against the union and to suggest that they encourage others to do the same.”
The NLRB, however, is tasked with investigating unfair labor practices (ULPs). In the context of union elections, these typically involve threats of disciplining or firing employees for their personal positions on unionization.
When asked if he thought there had been unfair labor practices, instances of intimidation or unfair discipline at TCU, Wangnoo replied, “We do have specific instances we’re concerned about.”
Over Our Heads
“These meetings go on in the third floor of the BLUU and the students don’t even know nothing,” one employee said about the meetings.
TCU 360 cannot independently verify the existence of these meetings that the Sodexo employees reported on the third floor of the BLUU over Market Square before and after work shifts.
The president of the campus National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, a student organization who Wangnoo identified as activist on the issue of the union vote, says he and other NAACP members have heard anecdotes about the meetings.
“I can say I’ve heard rumors from employees that they feel like they’re being coerced and other employees are being coerced not to join the union,” said Essie Craft, a senior psychology major and president of the campus NAACP chapter.
Wangnoo said the UFCW would not hesitate to file charges of an unfair labor practice with the NLRB when someone’s job was at risk or where someone was improperly disciplined. Despite this, he says the main focus at the moment is on the election March 24.
Although multiple Sodexo officials declined to discuss the outcome of the election, Wangnoo says he feels there’s a “great chance” the majority of workers will vote in favor of the union.
Craft said that the NAACP is still paying close attention to the union vote because of its core organizational purpose.
“Demographically, African Americans and Latinos make up most of the workers,” Craft said. “It is an NAACP issue that the NAACP is designed for.”
Craft said his organization wants to spread awareness about the importance of the loss of benefits to Sodexo workers.
“Losing benefits might just look like a piece of paper or something, but to the actual person it affects, that’s livelihood: that’s food, shelter, water, clothing,” Craft said..
While the benefits cuts have been delayed at some colleges, like administrative resistance or delays at several colleges in Vermont, the cuts have remained in effect here at TCU for almost three months.
“You’re working at one of the premier universities in the state and you can’t afford to send your kids to technical school,” remarked Wangnoo in the discussion with the workers.
“They’re feeding future politicians and future NFL players and things like that every day.”