Cafeteria workers, employees of Thompson Hospitality, were on strike on Thursday, protesting Thompson's unfair labor practices. This was the first strike of university cafeteria workers in the history of Chicago, according to the UNITE website: http://www.unitehere.org/presscenter/release.php?ID=4680. I was giving make-up finals in my office, which looks out on the student union building when I heard, "I don't know but I've been told...," the sing-song military cadence. I figured it was an ROTC drill, but when I looked out I saw a group of workers with signs saying "On Strike." When the last student was gone, I went over to join the pickets and show support.
Union organizers soon greeted me as I joined the chanting workers. I was asked to accompany a worker and a student in going to meet with university president Wayne Watson. The workers had received a letter three days earlier informing them that, because the university was in arrears in payments to Thompson, the food service at Chicago State would shut down and all workers would be terminated. We went to the president's office and were soon ushered into a room to meet with university lawyer Patrick Cage, vice president Angela Henderson, and a third man whose name I did not fully catch (but his first name was Lawrence, I believe). The cafeteria worker took the lead, stressing Thompson's unfair labor practices and the hardship of having her hours cut by Thompson so that she could not receive employment benefits. It was hard for her to support herself and her child, and Thompson was offering them $8.25/hr. Now they were being told that they would lose their jobs because the university had not paid Thompson. Cage responded that the university was only $50,000 in arrears for catering services (a small fraction of the university's $2,000,000 contract with Thompson) and that the bill would be paid within 24 hours. He insisted that the university believes that all workers should receive a living wage.
Our worker-leader pressed him on how this was possible given the conditions under which she and other cafeteria workers were working. It was impossible for her to provide for her family on the pay Thompson was offering. When asked what he meant by "living wage," Cage responded a wage comparable to what other workers doing the same work receive at universities in the Chicago area. We asked him to make a statement that this was the university's moral stance, that all workers at CSU, including contract workers, should receive a fair wage in that sense. He said he "would have to consult with the ethics officer" before articulating such an ideal on behalf of the university!!
We soon left and reported what had happened to the picketers. As background, readers should know that the cafeteria workers voted 39-2 in the spring to be represented by UNITE. Thompson is trying to punish these workers for insisting that they be treated with respect and dignity.
It turns out that Thompson is a black-led firm allied with Compass food services, specifically to served historically black and predominately minority campuses. It seems that black capitalist bosses specialize in racist oppression and exploitation of black food service workers! On Wednesday they had brought in four scabs at $14.40/hr. to intimidate the union workers, workers whom they refuse to pay such a wage.
I hope that Professor Pancho and others will supplement this post with more information about the history of this struggle.
In January there is likely to be further action, even a strike. Whatever happens I encourage faculty, staff and students to support our brothers and sisters who work for Thompson. We are all part of one class, the working class.