Dining hall televisions flash news and live footage of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. At noon, the dining hall workers leave their spots in the kitchens and food stations to begin their walk-out. They join students who met in the Snell Library quad to march in protest of the new commander-in-chief. Trump’s stance on immigration frightens many of the dining hall workers — several of whom are themselves immigrants — and they refuse to stay silent in the face of danger.
On Friday, Jan. 20, Northeastern University workers received permission from administration to participate in a walk-out with the help of Huskies Organizing With Labor (HOWL). HOWL is a student coalition that campaigns for and with dining hall workers to improve their wages, health care, and working conditions. For the walk-out, HOWL successfully helped the dining hall workers draft and deliver letters asking for permission to leave their shifts on Inauguration Day.
Fourth-year environmental studies and political science major Sarah Anderson has become one of the key student organizers of HOWL. She first got involved through the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), which is one of the 45 student organizations in the coalition, according to the group’s Facebook page.
“We get information about what’s happening with the workers so that we know what they need from us,” Anderson said. “We take direction from them. It’s a worker-led movement.”
At a general coalition meeting on Feb. 13, HOWL leader and first-year international business and French major Beca Muñoz claimed that dining hall workers suffered verbal and sexual abuse from their managers. They were often not permitted to speak their native language and had no allotted time to eat meals. It was reported that if workers stopped to eat, their managers would take their plates from them and throw their food away.
These incidents led HOWL to support workers in an effort to join the UNITE HERE Boston Local 26 union, which represents hospitality workers in Massachusetts. UNITE HERE also represents dining hall workers at Harvard, who organized a strike lasting several weeks last fall to campaign for better wages and benefits. With HOWL’s help in coordinating between Northeastern, Chartwells (the company that Northeastern contracts for dining hall services and the workers’ official employer), and UNITE HERE, the workers officially joined the union in 2012. HOWL lay dormant for a few years after this success, but the group is now back with renewed goals.
Since the organized walk-out in January, HOWL’s focus has shifted to discussing plans to help the union renegotiate the dining hall workers’ contract with Chartwells, which will expire in August. HOWL and UNITE HERE are hoping to achieve affordable health care for workers as well as a minimum annual salary of $35,000.
At an introductory coalition meeting held on Feb. 13, HOWL held a collective liberation workshop which included an interactive discussion about oppression. Its attendees were then divided into breakout groups about different aspects of HOWL. A group meant for people new to the cause featured dining hall worker Jose Taibot, who shared his own experiences with the students.
Taibot spoke about having a heart attack at work. When he asked for someone to call an ambulance, his manager told him to clock out and go home instead of helping him.
“My life is now better [because of the union],” Taibot said. “The employees in the cafeterias need your help … You have friends on campus. Talk, come here, support employees.”
Anderson said she believes it’s important for dining hall staff to make a living wage. She wants workers to have affordable health care as well as fair scheduling and working conditions.
“I think as students we have a responsibility to show up for the people who serve us food,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of power as students.”