Understanding Sodexho, Unionization and Food Service

For most college students, taking more than one cafeteria-cooked meal each day is a slightly different experience from his or her sweet wonder years, which makes it no surprise that dining is also a hot topic for friendly conversation. It is not uncommon to hold or overhear a conversation regarding one’s favorite on-campus dining location or item, his or her dread of having to eat once more at his or her respective dining location, or one’s far from expert theory of a cause and effect relationship between early morning bathroom experiences and the previous night’s meal. However, there is likely to be a great deal about campus dining to which the average UVM pupil is not privy. Like many institutions across North America, UVM hires a separate company to care to its dining needs. Sodexho is a member of the Sodexho alliance, which out-sources more than 120,000 of its employees worldwide to fill jobs in fields like education, housekeeping, plant operations, maintenance and more. Sodexho is the alliance’s food services division, sending staff to provide catering and dining to educational, corporate, and athletic establishments. Sodexho employs approximately 200 employees on the UVM campus, of which an estimated 95 percent are full-time (30+ hrs/week). According to general manager Melissa Zelazny, Sodexho is a full service provider for the university. The money made from the dining locations is directed entirely to Sodexho. Money not used to pay employees of Sodexho and not reinvested in the corporation is used to replace or repair damaged equipment, to fund projects such as the renovation of dining facilities, and to push initiatives like the inclusion of local providers and fair trade products on campus. Among the Sodexho troops on campus, cook Gerry Dougherty is in his second year working at UVM, putting in 40 or more hours each week. Before coming to work at UVM, Mr. Dougherty owned his own catering and restaurant businesses for more than ten years. “I come from a different point of view than most people working here. It used to be that people would always complain to me. This is my first time working for a corporation.” This writer remembers fondly Dougherty’s celebrated meatloaf dishes of past semesters, and recognizes him as a man of many hobbies, being among a select group of other employees that enjoys taking advantage of the recreational facilities on campus. “Food in general causes emotional strain. Exercise is a good stress reliever.” The Sodexho staff at UVM is not represented by a union. If ever the workers were to elect union representation, Teamsters Labor Union is a likely candidate. Teamsters’ food processing division is devoted to raising wages and benefits for employees, protecting employees’ jobs by resolving workers’ grievances, and improving safety standards. When asked why he thought Sodhexo employees had not unionized, Mr. Dougherty offered the Vermonters’ mindset as a possible explanation. “It seems to me that Vermonters, for some reason, are against unionization. They will work regardless of whether or not they are getting shafted.” The minimum beginner’s wage of any Sodexho employee at UVM is $7.15, assuming no prior experience. Management was unable to release specific pay and benefit packages, other than the fact that comprehensive benefits (i.e. dental, medical, life) are offered to employees, and “fair pay” is given to the employees, depending on one’s level of employment. One manager felt that a Union might detract from the relationships of managers and their employees, pointing out the difference between a union representative implementing rules and regulations versus a manager providing directly for his or her employees. “I feel that if a union membership was proposed, the employees would decline it.” The manager also added that he had never had one of his employees complain to him about their pay rate. Though the employees at UVM have not unionized, joining a union such as Teamsters, with a strong historical background of hard bargaining on behalf of its laborers, might prove to be beneficial sometime in the future.