At noon Thursday, during the heavy lunch rush, nearly half of the on-duty University of Miami dining hall workers walked off the job to protest for living wages. They formed a picket line at the university entrance on Stanford Drive and chanted and waved signs at passing cars for two hours.
The employees, who work for Chartwells, a contracted food service company, have been in negotiations since August. Many of the employees make less than $10,000 per year, and have to depend on food stamps to supplement their wages.
Chartwells workers unionized in May after seven months of protest against the company. The protests were sparked when employee Betty Asbury was fired after a man walked past her into the dining hall without paying. Asbury was reinstated a week later, after backlash from the community.
Asbury was one of the 13 people who walked out Thursday. She addressed the workers at the entrance of the university.
“I’m proud of you all,” Asbury said.
Chartwells responded to the protest with a prepared statement.
"Chartwells supports a campus environment where different viewpoints can be expressed publicly without any form of retaliation based on freedom of speech," the company said in a prepared statement. "Chartwells has an obligation to provide uninterrupted dining services for the campus and ensure that the safety of associates and guests is the number one priority."
The next negotiation meeting is set for Tuesday. The union says management is offering a pay cut, but some of the workers said they want a $1-per-hour increase. They also are seeking a better insurance package before 2016 , which is Chartwells current offer, according to union representatives. While the company offers an insurance plan now, the workers say the cost of the plan is too high for many employees.
Among the workers who walked out was Johnnie Baugh, who manages all deliveries and restocking.
“When it comes to respect, we don’t have it,” Baugh said. “People are tired. We’re doing our best to make the University of Miami proud and we don’t have any appreciation.”
Baugh has been working for Chartwells for 11 years and said that he makes the same wage as new hires, $9.30 per hour.
“That isn’t right,” he said.
Baugh lives with his wife, son and granddaughter. The wages make it difficult to support his family.
“We deserve more,” he said. “We’re doing our jobs, now we need Chartwells to do theirs.”
Students and professors have joined in the fight against Chartwells too. UM sociology Professor Linda Belgrave delivered a petition to UM President Donna E. Shalala on Wednesday with signatures from 171 faculty members.
Belgrave said she felt that the university had a responsibility to help the employees.
“These are the workers who feed us ... feed our students, and they don’t even have enough money to feed their kids,” Belgrave said.
In a prepared statement, UM’s administration said it is not involved with the negotiations.
“The University is not directly involved in this process, and will conduct business as usual under any scenarios related to these negotiations, and as needed if negotiations are not concluded in a timely fashion,” the statement said.
Throughout the bargaining, UM has maintained its neutrality, but Belgrave does not believe that is possible.