Bargaining Committee

at the table with Brown Dining Services' Steve Derderian

by by Jesse Strecker

Steve Derderian has worked for Brown Dining Services for 20 years and works at the stir-fry line at the V-dub. An Armenian immigrant, Derderian has lived in America for most of his life; his father is originally from Providence. The past three times BDS worker contracts have expired, Derderian has played a pivotal role on the bargaining committees that negotiate agreements between the workers and the University, along with fellow workers and a union representative. BDS and Brown settled on a new contract on october 16 that will raise dining service workers’ health care contributions from six to eight percent over the next two years, retain contested retirement benefits for new-hires, and bring down wage increases from 3.5 percent annually to two percent. Now that the dust has settled, Derderian spoke with the Independent about the experience.

How did you end up cooking here?
My dad was an engineer, so I kinda thought I should follow in his footsteps. I loved the schooling part, I loved mechanical engineering. I worked for three months, though, and I just hated it. But I always loved cooking. I took this job temporarily, but that was 20 years ago.

Why did you end up staying?
It sounds weird, but I love the variety of people here. I don’t think there’s anything else I could do where I meet more people. On a given day I meet over 100 people. And it’s a different atmosphere here. Everybody’s eager to learn, everybody’s anxious about the world, what’s going on. People have a more hopeful attitude here than the rest of the world does.

What issues were important to you in the bargaining
committee, this time around?

Health benefits have been tremendously important to me. I’ve been a diabetic since I was five, and I’ve been very lucky to have some phenomenal physicians, and the possibility of not being able to afford them was really disturbing. When you’re 20, you tend not to think of yourself as needing medical help. Everybody’s aware of how bad the economy is, but we live in it too. We pay rent, we pay mortgages, the cost of food, everything. So it shouldn’t be all on our backs to balance Brown’s economy.

What effect do you think the financial crisis had on the

I think any business is trying to trim off excess, but in some cases it doesn’t apply. Food services is kind of unique because it pays its own bills; it’s self-sufficient. We’re not supposed to have an excess. So, what’s going on in the economy shouldn’t bear on what goes on with food services. I don’t see why we’d be put in a position where we have to make cuts. We’re like the bottom of the ladder, kind of.

Why did you oppose the University’s original offer?
It wasn’t something that we could have lived with. The original proposal that the University put in front of us would have been going backwards. My paycheck this week would have been smaller than it was last week. Healthcare would have been unaffordable to a lot of us. But that’s how bargaining goes. They start by saying something that’s way to the other side of normal. But I don’t think it’s fair when, this year, United Health [Brown’s health insurance provider] lowered their premiums, for us to double our premium payment. There’s no logic in it. [The University] is paying less and they want me to pay more than double of what I’m paying? That did not sit well with me. The University said their original proposal would have lowered health care contributions for a significant portion of workers—That’s not a realistic portrayal. That’s a very calculated image. They said 65 percent of the people would pay one percent less. But other people would pay more than 10 percent more. It was highly calculated to make it seem like they had a better plan for the majority, and the remaining people weren’t being fair to them. It’s just bunk.

What do you think led the University to give you the last offer you ended up settling on?
I think the more truth that came out, the more cooperative the University got. Students play a huge part in negotiations, and if there hadn’t been as much public information, the University’s stance would have been a lot different than it turned out to be. We can pretty much all live with the contract we came out with. I’m still paying more for my medical coverage this year than I was last year, but that’s part of life. There are certain things you have to accept. At one point in bargaining, the workers voted to strike if a favorable contract wasn’t reached.

What role do you think the strike vote played in negotiations?
Well, it was necessary because it showed that what they proposed was not acceptable. Most people were pretty outraged by the initial offer. But nobody wants to strike. If we’re on strike we don’t get paid. So, it’s not an easy choice. But it came to the point where I’d rather not get paid temporarily, than sign away on a contract that I can’t live with.

Is there any message you hope your co-workers will take away from negotiations?
Yeah. Unity is huge. Before the strike endorsement, a lot of people were hesitant; they thought they couldn’t afford to go on strike. But if you believe in something stick with it. It’s amazing how much stuff can be done if everybody sticks together. That’s probably the strongest lesson we get from it.

Has participating in negotiations changed you?
I don’t know if it’s changed me, but it has made me more determined. This is part of our lives. I’ve been here 20 years. People spend a lot of time here. I believe if you’ve been here for a long time you should be rewarded. There should be fairness. The experience, for me, has been more focused on ‘this is how it should be’.

Any final words?
I’d specifically like to thank the students for their involve- ment. It’s not hard to believe, but I was amazed. The students were with us. Every time you turned around, they were there, and it was like, ‘Thank you.’ The amount of focus and dedication was amazing. I’ve spoken with folks, and everybody feels like that. And we have healthcare. We’re debating about how much it’s going to cost, but nationwide, there’s tons of people that have no healthcare. Everybody says this is the greatest country, but there are other countries that are doing a better job. It amazes me—and I’m an immigrant so I believe in American opportunity—that so many people are without basic healthcare. Somewhere along the line we’re not doing things right, and you can debate forever where that is, but the bottom line is, there are tons of people who don’t have medical coverage. I don’t get that. Not to be preaching, but for people who are homeless not to have food, I just don’t get that in America. We have so much excess; you know they say our garbage would feed the world. We’re fighting three different wars, but we can’t feed our own people, we can’t medicate our own people? How does that not get fixed?