Since September 2018, Brown University catering service employees have been negotiating their contract with the University in an attempt to unionize. The catering banquet captains are seeking to be represented by the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island, according to Karen McAninch, the union’s business agent. USAW is the same union that represents Brown University library and facilities workers, as well as the rest of Dining.
The department has been stymied in its attempt to come to an agreement with the University, with catering negotiators citing an inability to square the demands of the contract with the reality of their job. Without an agreed-upon, signed contract, the catering workers remain in a temporary holding pattern, neither in the Union nor out of it. In order to address unresolved matters, federal mediation has been requested.
Moreover, Brown’s partnership with the Bon Appetit Management company has coincided with shifting management structures, increased monitoring, and arbitrary policy changes. These trends suggests an underlying disinterest on Brown’s part in meaningfully factoring workers’ day-to-day realities into management and negotiations. When negotiating with catering workers, Brown needs to be more sensitive to the unique way that catering operates within the University.
One issue forms the crux of the disagreement: the University wants catering workers to clock in and out at the beginning and end of their shifts. As reasoning, the University cites consistency and fairness with the protocols of other dining units. However, according to McAninch, other dining stewards—dining employees who act as union officials representing and defending the interests of fellow employees—have provided signed letters of support to catering services in their negotiations. These letters acknowledge that the role of catering workers is distinctly different from that of the other dining services workers who currently clock in and out, and that schedule flexibility is necessary for catering operations. Ultimately, what other dining stewards recognize, as well as catering banquet captains, is that the irregular nature of catering is at odds with Brown’s contract expectations.
The highly variable nature of catering makes clocking in and out a major inconvenience for workers. Events routinely end early or go late, and often take place at locations far from the Ratty (where they would have to clock in), such as campus’ north end or off-campus satellite locations such as the School of Public Health and the Medical School.
Still, the University has remained obstinate on this issue. Rather than supporting catering workers by acknowledging the importance of flexibility and autonomy on the job, dining managers have proposed convoluted alternatives that ignore the workers’ main concerns. Management has suggested installing time clocks in all satellite locations and providing Zipcar accounts so that employees aren’t using their own vehicles, a solution which would add time and complication to the tasks of catering staff. Rather than trusting employees to show up for their jobs, the University is insisting on increased monitoring and surveillance. These measures have not historically been necessary for adequate functioning of the department and will only make abiding by catering operations protocols more expensive, complicated and arduous — without adding any perceivable benefit.
These increased expectations for catering services coincide with inadequate funding for the department, resulting in fewer people and less access to equipment than ever. Dining employees in Catering and throughout the Dining department are being asked to do more with fewer resources. While catering continues to grow each year, the department struggles with growing pains due to a lack of resources, such as insufficient full-time staffing and outdated or broken equipment. Labor shortages during busier events are addressed by outsourcing labor to temp agencies.
The strains faced by catering workers have coincided with significant shifts of management in Dining Services. In September 2016, Brown Dining Services launched a partnership with Bon Appétit Management Company, an on-site restaurant company. Although catering workers are negotiating with the University, and not directly with Bon Appétit, the consulting company’s presence brought on immediate and drastic changes in working conditions for dining workers. According to a 2017 Brown Daily Herald article, dining service workers say that Bon Appétit’s presence in BDS middle management has increasingly “brought on new responsibilities — with little change in compensation.” Workers are manning more stations than ever, and those whose roles were once limited to serving food are now expected to prepare food from scratch as well.
Bon Appétit has a history of asking the same number of employees to do more work with fewer resources, as evidenced by previous labor campaigns at Lafayette and UPenn in 2013, WashU in 2017, Oberlin in 2018, and several other universities. At Oberlin, for example, patterns emerged of undertraining and inappropriate conduct on the part of Bon Appétit’s managers, as well as disregarding the experiences and talents of dining service workers in favor of generic policies implemented by frequently rotating managers. As generic policies and shifting managerial practices emerge, certain workers fear that Bon Appétit’s practices at Brown will be no exception. Peter Rossi, managing director of Dining Services, has left his current position at the University. Additionally, several mid-level employees in Brown’s Main Dining Room have either left or accepted a job demotion. As these relatively swift changes occur, there is concern throughout the department that Brown University management is slowly being replaced by Bon Appétit. These managerial changes are affecting the current unionization negotiations. While the company is not directly involved in negotiations, their presence informs what the future of dining will look like. Rather than preferencing top-down managerial measures, Brown needs to be more sensitive to the unique way that catering operates within the University.
In the past couple of years, the University’s partnership with Bon Appétit has made it harder for workers to do their jobs. Yet the current catering negotiation standstill has gone largely unnoticed by the majority of the Brown community. Despite the fact that catering services are present at events throughout campus and play an essential role in the day-to-day functioning of the university, the 10-person department has historically been invisible to students and the broader university community. Students should be aware of these ongoing struggles for justice in our community. As students who rely on the labor of Brown’s employees, we urge the University to meaningfully include workers in the decisions that affect their daily operations.
This letter was originally published online at Uprise RI.
NOA MACHOVER B’19.5 and NORA LAWRENCE B’19, two members of Brown Student Labor Alliance, want you to support local workers’ struggles.