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Chicago Food Service Workers Demand Prevailing Wage

by Joe Iosbaker |
February 1, 2002
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Union members on stage chanting.
Leaders of Local 73 at UIC chant "Who let the dogs out? UIC did." (Fight Back! News/Joanne Misnik)

Chicago, IL - In the spring of 2001, 150 Sodexho food service employees at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) voted to join the Service Employees International Union Local 73. They work in the cafeterias in the student union buildings.

These jobs were privatized 15 years ago. Civil service jobs were replaced by outside companies. Since then, wages have plummeted and benefits have been slashed. UIC made this move because they were facing budget cuts from the state. They shifted the burden of the crisis onto the backs of the people who were least able to afford it.

12 months ago, Local 73 organized Sodexho workers back into the union. They united, and in December, won a first contract - with wage increases, more holidays, and a grievance procedure.

Now, Sodexho's contract with UIC is expiring, and there could be a new boss in these dining halls. They'll hear a clear message from these workers. In the words of Keshaunda Owens, a cashier in the Chicago Illini Union and union activist, "On Feb. 15, when we find out who's coming in, the message is 'we are union and they need to recognize us.' If they don't, we'll start the fight over again."

Another development is that Local 73 has discovered a prevailing wage requirement that applies to food service workers. It says UIC must pay all these workers the same wage that other food service workers in Cook County are making. Currently, starting wages in the kitchen at the UIC Hospital are between $7.80 and $10.80, but starting wages at Sodexho's dining hall cafeteria are between $6.25 and $7.75.

This is the new demand of these workers. "As employees, we're going to unite and fight for the prevailing wage," said Owens.

For the labor movement, there is an important lesson here. The student union food service jobs were in Local 73 until they were privatized. Local 73's new leadership came in a few years ago. "It's better to fight privatization up front than to go back to the task," said Tom Terranova, Local 73 representative. "But we'll do whatever it takes to make these decent paying jobs," he added.