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.
“There is no neutrality in the face of oppression,” she said.
The strike comes a week after the cleaning and landscaping workers at UM reached a contract agreement with their employer after agreeing to strike if they were not satisfied with the company’s offer.
DTZ/Unicco workers announced last Tuesday they had accepted a contract that would increase hourly pay by 35 cents and give them one more personal day per year.
The company initially offered a 10-cent pay increase for the 410 workers. The union had authorized a strike if Unicco had not given a better offer by the time the contract expired on Aug. 31.
"We are very pleased that we could reach an agreement with our workers on this contract," said George Lohnes, a spokesman for DTZ. "We value the relationship with our union partners and our employees and look forward to a continued strong working relationship."
This was the second contract for the Unicco workers. They went on strike in 2006 to increase wages. They were making a minimum of $6.40 an hour at the time, which Unicco raised to at least $8.55 an hour, plus health insurance, with the first contract.
"Over the last seven years DTZ/Unicco workers have been able to make dramatic improvements to their lives," said Erik Brakken, director of 32BJ SEIU Florida, which also represents Chartwells. "They’ve gone from a situation where they were in extreme poverty to a situation where they have jobs that pay them wages that they can support their families with."
Before their 2006 strike, some of the Unicco workers were making $13,000 per year, or $3,000 more than some Chartwells workers are now making.
"We’re focused on bringing the Chartwells workers closer to where the Unicco workers are, than where they are now," Brakken said. "We’re hopeful that the university and Chartwells want to help bring food service up to a place where they can raise families and plan for a better future."
Ira Davis, who has worked for Chartwells for a decade, said the dining halls are understaffed, which makes the low wages even more frustrating.
“We’re doing two people’s jobs,” Davis said. “They don’t want to hire anybody.”
But for Davis and many other employees, the hope is that with a new contract, they will be able to lead more normal lives.
“Sometimes I want to be able to plan a vacation too. I can’t even do that,” she said.