Cafeteria Workers Ask For Student Support of Their Labor Union

Courtesy of Progressive Student Union

By Mariah Solis

Progessive Student Union (PSU) invited the Catholic Labor Network and foodservice workers’ union UNITE HERE Local 23 as guest speakers for the event Social Teaching and Campus Workers on Tuesday, September 27. During this meeting, they discussed D.C.’s labor union history, The Catholic Church’s relationship with labor unions, and working conditions and wages at D.C. universities. 

In an effort to discuss workplace conditions and pay for the cafeteria workers at Catholic University of America, the political student organization PSU hosted an event for several Local 23 union members to share their experiences within the foodservice industry and the union. 

Catholic University’s cafeteria workers are currently preparing for contract negotiations that will occur later this school year after their current contract expires in 2024. Knowing this, many of the workers came to this event at the end of their shifts to share their story and why they seek student support. 

Jack Kruger, junior politics major and Vice President of PSU, later commented, “This is the first time they have been invited to a student event of any kind. It goes to show how thankless the position is sometimes.”

A Starbucks worker named Tabitha Johnson talked about how she joined the union in 2015 after being fired from her previous job for absences after getting diagnosed with lupus, despite being federally protected for medical leave. Since then, she has worked at Catholic University for over thirteen years. She has a 19 year old son in college, and has been working seven days a week, sometimes ten to twelve hours a day, to provide for their needs and his education. 

Johnson stated that the workers’ hours are currently being cut to avoid providing insurance for employees, and said that getting full-time hours has been a struggle for several of them. Even though she believes they have great managers, she wants to see more help from them. She also commented that although students may sometimes leave thank you notes and cards for the Starbucks employees, they still need greater support when it comes to workers asking for raises and better healthcare.

“It’s hard on the body but on the mind even more, especially when you work hard and it’s not that appreciated,” Johnson stated. “We have people who have worked here twenty-plus years who are getting sixteen to seventeen dollars an hour.” 

“School mother” Miss Willie, known for her positive attitude and welcoming conversations with students, also spoke at the event. As she approached the podium, she pulled out a stack of papers from her pocket. 

“This right here is my contract, the union contract. I walk with it, I talk with it; I know it better than I know my Bible.” 

She continued by saying how she joined the union in 1967 at 19 years old. 

“At that time I had a baby, I had rent, and I had to be at work at 6 o’clock in the morning. I worked five days a week. By God’s grace I survived.” 

Her biggest contention was that cafeteria workers need to be getting higher wages. As she shared her story and the experiences of the workers, she continued to mention how much she and the workers love the students. 

“Thank you for letting us love you, and if anything goes wrong between my sisters and brothers, please address it. Respect everybody. We are going to need you. God bless you, and thank you so much.” 

In addition to CUA’s cafeteria workers, the union brought representatives from American University, Georgetown University, Trinity University, and Howard University to testify in support of Local 23 and share their own experiences on their respective campuses. Many of them shared stories about taking several night shifts, being a single parent providing for multiple kids, and unfair treatment in the workplace. Additionally, they discussed how the union helped them secure better healthcare and receive dignity on the job. 

A worker named Rolanda Frazier talked about how standing for multiple hours with no accommodation resulted in her needing knee surgery. She then proceeded to share how people at her work are not getting adequate healthcare or retirement benefits, even if they have worked 60 or more years there. In response, several students at her institution backed up the workers by creating a successful go-fund me for them. 

Marisol Zayas, junior architecture major and Events Coordinator for PSU, later reflected, “One of the workers from Georgetown talked about how once they were finally able to make change, he said, ‘I was able to see.’ He was finally able to get insurance to get glasses. It’s not something you think about. I have a prescription, it’s a basic necessity. For someone who is working twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, and isn’t able to get that with their payment seems unacceptable.”

Joshua Armstead, Chapter Vice President and organizer for UNITE HERE Local 23, talked about his experience working at Georgetown for eight years. 

“The dynamics of students and workers organizing are very important. In Georgetown, it was the students and the workers coming together that allowed many workers to achieve better existence. I was able to get healthcare for the first time in thirteen years because students and workers came together, fought a major corporation, and actually got a decent contract. And we see that replicated all across the country, when students and workers are working in tandem.” 

Armstead also detailed the deep history of labor unions in Washington D.C. He stated that primarily Black women were getting underpaid while working in cafeterias and the federal government, so they joined a union started by a woman named Rosa Lewis and conducted a massive strike in 1948. He also talked about the walk outs they did to desegregate the capital. 

Michael Pikarski, junior politics major and President of PSU, later reflected, “They demanded a fair wage. They marched with Paul Robeson as well, who was a labor hero, so they have a very deep connection to a famous labor movement, the civil rights movement, and desegregation.”

“The road we travel is not new, it’s still very hard, but others before us have done it. It’s our vocation to keep moving with them,” Armstead said. 

“Regarding the history, I think it’s important to point out that DC has a big Black population, and a lot of the workers that are part of these labor unions are Black,” stated Sara Mosley, junior politics major and Secretary of PSU. “It sits wrong with my soul,  going to the Catholic University of America that has a predominantly white population, and our workers are predominantly Black, and yet the administration is predominantly white and they’re not doing much for their workers that hold up day to day life at Catholic University.”

During the event, a representative for the Catholic Labor Network gave a presentation about the Catholic Church’s historical relationship to labor unions, particularly through papal letters. He discussed how in 1891, Pope Leo XIII saw the divide of rich and poor and believed that it was not what God intended. This resulted in him issuing Rerum Novarum, an encyclical letter on the conditions of labor and the workers’ right to join labor unions, which was a sentiment reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II. Afterwards, Pope Benedict XVI wrote the encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, where he states that Pope Leo XIII’s letter about the workers right to organize is even more important in our modern economy. Most recently, Pope Francis has been vocal about the workers right to organize.

Kruger reflected on this part of the event saying, “If you listen to the Catholic Church and its teachings, you can’t not listen to them when they are talking about labor unions and labor rights.”

To understand where the rest of the general student population stands, an online poll was conducted with the participation of 223 students. Out of this sample size, 68% voted in support of the cafeteria worker’s union, 21% voted neutral, and 11% opposed. 

“I think it’s really important to follow the voices of the workers and try to understand their perspective. I think that your perspective as a student can make it very difficult to see through their eyes why they do the things they do, why they go into this industry, and why they are put in the position that they’re in,” sophomore politics major Cole Holland said. “I think the hard thing is when they are being underpaid and not equitably paid, because they can’t do their job as well. When they can’t do their job as well, their managers are not going to be happy, and the students aren’t going to be happy, and it creates an unhappy cultural dynamic between the students and the workers.”

Zayas argued, “I just think that maybe students would be hesitant because like, ‘Oh, my tuition is going to increase,’ or, ‘If the payment of the Pryz workers is added to the payment that the school has to make, would this go into our tuition?’ Is that concern really worth someone’s livelihood? The Pryz workers are people just as much as we are. I don’t think it should be as much of a concern about money as it is people having every right to live a life as flourished as we have been able to.” 

“The president of the university and these top lieutenants have been seeing payment increases basically almost every year, there were also some administrator payment increases this year,” Kruger claimed. “The fact that the president gets paid almost six-hundred thousand dollars every year while these workers are working for the wages that they are, the days that they are, without the proper benefits or maybe the proper health insurance, it’s kind of a mismatch to me.”

“I think it’s important to understand that these are people who are working sometimes every day of the week to ensure that we are getting food, getting services,”Correy Crawford, junior politics major and Public Affairs for PSU, said. “These are the people that are gonna be there for us, so it’s important to support them equally just as they have supported us through our careers as students here. We want the Miss Willies of the world to continue being able to live while also helping us, and be paid a living wage and a living salary.” 

Kruger added, “You should love all the Pryz workers as much as you love Miss Willie. At the end of the day, they all care just as much as her. She may be the face of the Pryz workers, but everyone should be supportive.”

When asked what actions PSU and other students want to accomplish, Mosley said, “I think the next step is organizing with other organizations on campus, because I think it’s important to really get together and put our differences aside and unite on this one thing that I think we can all agree on.”

Poll and Poll Graphic Courtesy of @cuapolls on Instagram

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