Jose Taibot knew something was wrong. His head ached, his blood pressure plummeted and he suddenly felt overcome by sickness. He stepped away from the grill, the one he’d worked at for six years in Northeastern’s Stetson East dining hall, and begged his manager to call an ambulance “Please,” he said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
The response appalled him. “Come on, Jose, you just want to go home.” Eventually, the manager allowed him to leave.
Taibot walked out of the dining hall and into mid-August’s sweltering 95-degree heat, knowing he would have to take public transportation to East Boston Medical Center. He arrived after a lengthy two-train commute but before he could reach the front door, Taibot collapsed. He woke up in the intensive care unit hours later, where he was told about the major blockage in a main artery. A doctor explained that if he’d arrived just 15 minutes later, Taibot would be dead.
“The managers [were going to] let me die here. They never apologized – they attacked my life,” Taibot says. “That’s why when I found out that the union wanted to organize, I was the first one to stand up and get in line.”
In mid-March, Northeastern University dining hall workers delivered a petition to Chartwell’s food service administration, stating the their plan to unionize. Employees, like Taibot, have put forth claims of disrespect, mistreatment, abuse, unfair wage and poor benefits. These allegations acted as a catalyst to jumpstart the movement, and the petition was signed by nearly 75 percent of the staff.
In the past five years alone, stories of abuse and allegations of mistreatment by college service workers have been cropping up all throughout the United States. In May 2011, housekeepers at the University of Maryland alleged that they’d been subjected to sexual harassment, racial discrimination and abuse at the hand of their employer. Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. came under fire in 2010 when the vast majority of its food service workers came forward and demanded the right to unionize, reporting severe mistreatment by the college. And for the past several years, service workers at Harvard have been actively crusading for living wages and more humane, habitable working conditions and treatment.
Now, Northeastern is added to the rapidly growing list of colleges being pinned by service workers as complacent accessories to mistreatment.
Northeastern falls into the private sector category of American businesses, which sit under the National Labor Relations Act. “Less than 12 percent of the workforce is unionized in this country, and in the private sector, it’s down to about eight percent,” says Elaine Bernard, director of Harvard Law’s labor and worklife program. “There are a whole lot of barriers and it’s extremely difficult to unionize.”
Taibot still works under Chartwell’s management, despite their nonchalance about the incident that threatened his life. “Do I think they put me in danger? Definitely, 100 times I feel this way. But I need this job, this is the only one I have.”
The Honduras native, banded with his coworkers in solidarity, knows there’s a desperate need for this union. “I want respect, to be valued as a human being and an employee. I want to be paid fairly. I want dignity.”
* * *
Though it’s true that service workers have been increasingly active in the crusade for better treatment as of late, the phenomenon is not a new one. Steven Vallas, chairman of Northeastern’s sociology department, notes that campaigns for improvement in less-favored jobs have been prevalent since the beginning of the 20th century.
“If you go back to 1920, working at a steel mill, there were really horrible conditions. It was dangerous and filthy, and you worked 16-hour days, six and a half days a week. Nobody wanted to work in a steel mill if there was any alternative. But fast forward to 1940 or 1950, those became good jobs and now, people would kill to have jobs in steel mills,” Vallas explains. “What I’m saying is, whether jobs become good or bad jobs is open to negotiation. We can change existing conditions.”
It’s that notion that has driven employees in service and hospitality jobs to speak out, especially in the last decade. But the heightened demand for equality comes as result of overall worsened working conditions.
Bernard, director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, underscores how the nation’s economic bubble burst has continued to affect workplace unionization.
“It’s ongoing. We’ve had a recession since 2008 so of course we continue to have fights,” says Bernard, “Fights about contracting, fights about wages, benefits and hours.”
In order to stay afloat in the face of recent economic hardships, universities and colleges throughout America have taken to outsourcing companies responsible for custodial work, food service, and other hospitality jobs. However, this cost-friendly solution ends up being less than friendly on every other plane.
“Instead of service workers being employees of the university, where they could go directly to the university, or they could line up with students and other people to stand up against what was happening, they became employees of a third party,” says Bernard. “The university can seek to say ‘Its not us, we’re not the employer, the employer is Chartwell’s,’ and then the contractor can say, ‘Well it’s not our fault, the university gives us a contract.’”
Geoff Carens, union representative in the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, highlights the reluctance of most universities to accept accountability for outsourced workers.
“The struggle has to be to hold the university’s seat to the fire and force them to see that they control everything. If they tell the outsource company, ‘You have to pay your workers X amount of dollars,’ that’s what they’ll do,” said Carens, who is also a union activist for dozens of businesses throughout Boston. “The university decides whether they employ a certain company or not, so they have a lot of influence.”
Vallas, who authored the 2012 publication “Conceptualizing Power in Work Organizations,” says in regard to subcontracting, “ethical obligations are sticky. There’s no way in the world that a university can outsource its work, and then wash its hands of what happens,” Vallas says. “I think administration had to be educated or convinced that they had to take responsibility for whatever goes on under Chartwell’s management.”
Brian Lang, president of Unite Here’s Local 26 sector in Boston, believes that a university and its contracted companies share joint responsibility for all employees.
“Most universities have a code of conduct for the campus community. All employers, regardless of it they’re on-campus or not, have a social and a moral responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect,” says Lang. He also notes that while that is the best-case scenario, it’s rare that companies act so valiantly. “Employers are more likely to be disrespectful, and underpay, and provide very poor or no benefits.”
The troubles that came with America’s economic downturn gave the working class a new set of problems to grapple with. But often, with claims resembling Bello’s, service workers seek to unionize is in protest of poor working conditions and in a demand for respect.
Lang says that out of work relationships can influence employees to seek improvements. “They oftentimes have friends and relatives that work in a unionized setting, and they’ve discovered that the pay, the benefits, the work rules, and the sense of dignity and respect that people have in a work setting where there’s a union is far superior,” Lang says.
Aside from conclusions made by comparison, there are internal, work-related problems that plague service workers.
“Two factors – labor market vulnerability and a weakened sense of citizenship – take their toll on workers lives,” Vallas says. “The notion is that [these workers] can be replaced at a moment’s notice. When managers need to get things done, they don’t need to worry, ‘Do I need to be nice to this person? Do I need to convince and motivate this person, make them feel a sense of commitment to this organization?’”
Vallas says that the majority of service workers in the United States are immigrants, which further complicates the situation. “They don’t have linguistic familiarity, or they don’t feel that they are considered to be members of American society,” Vallas says of immigrant workers. “They are often times treated and assumed to be second-class citizens.”
Taibot, now an 11-year employee at Stetson East dining hall, is still subject to what Vallas calls “management by intimidation.” After Taibot suffered a work injury, his manager didn’t ask him if he was hurt – but the manager did tell him, repeatedly, how stupid he was.
“I could barely walk,” Taibot says of his injuries sustained after falling from a ladder onto a grill, and then the floor. Chartwell’s managers waited for Taibot in the office, where he was forced to sign a waiver he couldn’t understand.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to sign these papers because I don’t know what I’m gonna sign.’ And then he said to me, ‘If you don’t sign, I’m going to fire you and then you can work at McDonalds.’”
While there are a host of legitimate factors that serve as motivation for unions in the workplace, standing up against management is a nerve-racking act that takes a calculated plan and a lot of courage.
“Right now in the United States, the labor laws are really tilted in the advantage of employers,” says Carens. “Most union drafts fail because management can use dirty tricks: they fire activists, they subject workers to captive-audience meetings and anti-union propaganda, and they make threats that people will lose their jobs, make less money and that unions will interfere in work relationships.”
* * *
Angela Bello is relaxing in a secluded corner of Northeastern’s Stetson East dining hall. It’s minutes before the end of her shift, and Bello, a four-year employee of the dining hall, finally pauses to enjoy a plate of the food she’s been serving for hours. She sits with several coworkers, who quietly smile and watch her as she talks. Though they’re all dressed identically, Bello has added an embellishment to her outfit – not a fashion statement, but a demand for respect. The white button pinned high on her food-stained apron reads, “Vote Yes for Dignity.”
Bello is the spokesperson for Northeastern’s dining hall workers, and leader of the movement that marked the beginning of the employees’ plan to unionize. Since that time, Northeastern workers have voted to join Local 26 in a landslide victory, with 87 percent in-favor ballots.
Bello is elated by the recent success and plans to move forward accordingly, but she won’t forget what drove she and her coworkers to this point.
“I’ve stayed in the job because I need that stupid job. I’ve felt like a worm. They made me feel like a little worm inside a plant,” Bello said. “When people are scared and people are working in fear, that’s when I push myself to say that’s not right. This is America. This is freedom of speaking here,” she asserted. “People work hard, at least give us what we deserve: Respect.”
In Boston, Unite Here’s Local 26 department has long been responsible for more than two-dozen hotels in the area, in addition to three private universities.
As the newest addition to Local 26, Northeastern University workers are on the path to unionization, aiming at the possibility for better treatment. “Now that workers have certified through government-run election that they want Local 26 to represent them at the bargaining table, now the bargaining starts,” says Vallas.
Bello expands on the changes she and her coworkers hope for in the coming months. “We are organized and we want the union because we want a better life for ourselves, we want better life insurance, we want better money,” Bello says. “Treat us with respect, with dignity. We’re not here looking for trouble; we’re here to extend our hands to [the management.]”
Lang knows from experience the incredible changes that can arise from effective unionizing – changes that workers at Northeastern hope to achieve.
“At Harvard, the average wage rate is $20 an hour. They have excellent benefits, they have a defined benefit pension plan, and they know over the course of this next five years when they’re going to get a pay increase because its in their contract,” Lang says. “They have a mechanism demanding that they be respected, that there’s a system of accountability that goes both ways.” Lang believes this is within reach at other institutions, Northeastern included.
After spending 15 years at Local 26 and working on countless cases in favor of equality, Lang anticipates, “The future is bright. When food workers are paid well, given good benefits, and respected, it has an effect on the communities” Lang says. “People can be part of wholesome neighborhoods, where they can raise their families with dignity and respect. Boston is a better place to live as a result.”
Taibot, a friend and coworker of Bello, hopes for a bright future for his three children, ages 11, 17 and 20. “I want to work hard [so I can] educate them – but with the salary I have, it’s not easy.” Taibot makes $15 an hour. The minimum wage for line cooks in Boston is $21 per hour.
Whether in Boston or any other American town, Vallas believes that unionization lays the groundwork for a society that treats people, regardless of origin and class, with dignity, fairness and appreciation.
“You can’t envision a democratic society without a union. People really need the right to organize on their own behalf,” Vallas says. “It comes pretty close to the American dream: that people can just work hard, and earn something to pass on to their children. And I’d like to think that we make that possible for people.”
Back in Stetson East, Bello pauses to reflect on her active crusade for the betterment of her workplace. “I didn’t know I had that much courage. I feel like a superwoman,” she says. “I never thought this time was coming, but it’s here already. We’re gonna win. That will be unforgettable.”