As the end of the semester quickly approaches and the holiday season is in full swing, there’s no shortage of events and festivities happening across campus. And, of course, what’s a party without food? Now, however, the question of who provides this food has become a point of contention among dining workers, students and the Brandeis administration.

On the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 1, students from the Brandeis Leftist Union bundled up in scarves, hats and layers of coats and gathered at the bottom of the Rabb steps. Behind them hung a banner reading “Protect Those Who Feed Us. Support Dining Workers.” They were joined by members of the Brandeis dining staff, some of whom were on their shift break and still wearing their name tags.

Demonstrators encouraged passersby to sign the “Petition to Support Union Dining Workers,” which was originally announced in a post on the BLU Instagram page on Nov. 21. “We have recently become aware that Brandeis University has been hiring outside contractors and temporary workers to cater events — workers whose wages and benefits are not protected by a union contract — instead of giving the jobs to union catering workers here on campus,” states the petition, which is sponsored by BLU, the Brandeis Labor Coalition and the Brandeis Nordic Skiing Team.

As of Monday evening, 530 students and 14 student groups had signed the petition, along with faculty members, alumni, parents and area residents. 

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A student passes out flyers with a QR code linked to the petition.

Brandeis was originally planning on picking a food service vendor in spring 2020, but due to the pandemic, the contract with the current company, Sodexo, was extended two years, meaning that the school will be making the decision on future dining contracts this upcoming spring. If a company other than Sodexo is chosen, it will replace Sodexo as the vendor on campus.

On Sept. 22 of last year, “Summary of the Contract Extension with Sodexo” was released on the Brandeis website, outlining the changes to dining on campus that would be made starting in fall 2020 as a result of the newly signed contract between the University and Sodexo. It states, “catering is no longer limited to Sodexo so that there can be more flexibility in event planning.”

According to dining workers and union representatives, neither Sodexo nor Brandeis notified them of this change. Due to the lack of events on campus last year because of the pandemic, it went unnoticed by workers until around a month into the current school year. Kevintz Merisier, who has been working in the dining staff at Brandeis for 10 years, said in a phone interview with the Justice on Dec. 5 that he was walking from Usdan to Sherman one night in late September when he noticed trucks from an outside catering company parked outside and saw people dressed in catering uniforms. This was how he first became aware that non-Sodexo workers were being hired for campus events.

At the demonstration on Wednesday, Merisier told the Justice that the first time he saw outside workers catering events he was “a bit puzzled,” but his confusion turned to worry and anger as he started to see it happening more often.

As a Catering Supervisor, one of Merisier’s main responsibilities is managing catered events on campus. He says that in prior years, he would get 10 hours or more of overtime a week through catering. This semester, with the return of in-person events, he expected that this would continue. However, Merisier says that he and the other Catering Supervisors are receiving far fewer requests for catering this semester than in the years before the pandemic, and when they do get hired for events, it is often just to drop off tablecloths.

While he is still working full-time due to Sodexo placing him in various dining service positions on campus, which he refers to as “filling holes,” the reduction in overall hours has led to increased financial strain for Merisier and has led him to start working as a Doordash and GrubHub driver in order to pay the bills and support his children.

Merisier said that he and the other workers, especially the catering team, are concerned about the long-term security of their jobs because Sodexo is actively looking for new hires to fill the empty positions, or “holes,” that are currently being filled by the catering and other Brandeis dining workers to make up for the reduced catering hours.

“[Catering team workers] are fulfilling the role of jobs that are currently posted on the Brandeis website, as in, Brandeis is currently looking for other hires. You can see how once Brandeis hires people for this work combined with them outsourcing all catering work is a danger to current unionized catering workers,” Ellis Huang ’23 said to the Justice over Instagram on Monday, Dec. 6. Huang is part of BLU and is actively involved in the efforts to push back against the new catering policy. 

When asked about these concerns in an email interview on Monday, University Services Jeffrey Hershberger told the Justice, “There is no job security issue here. The dining workers in these positions are not in jeopardy of losing their jobs.” In an email response sent by Hershberger on Thursday to BLU member Cassandra Anderson ’25, which he forwarded to the Justice, he spoke about the decision to make the change to allow for outside companies to cater events, saying, “The shift you are observing was in direct response to community feedback stating the desire to seek and utilize third-party service providers.”

The demands listed in the petition are directed to the University, Hershberger and University President Ron Liebowitz. They include pledging to utilize the current unionized workers, rather than non-union workers from outside companies, for all catering, dining and event services and changing the dining contract to make catering exclusive to the Brandeis dining staff.

The other two demands are less specific to the issue of catering and ask that the University guarantee the current dining service workers job security and continue to honor their union contract whether or not it decides to change contractors. However, the union contract currently in place and effective through June 2024 is between Sodexo and UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that all Brandeis dining workers belong to. Brandeis does not sign onto this contract.

According to the text of the petition, the union that the dining workers are part of cannot directly influence the University’s decision-making because it is only able to negotiate with Sodexo, not the school. It goes on to say, “As students, we are uniquely positioned to influence Brandeis’ decision making, as we are the ones who pay tuition.”

Speaking to the Justice on Sunday — her 21st anniversary as a Brandeis dining worker — Lucia Hsiung said that many members of the dining staff have not yet realized that this change has occurred or haven’t recognized it as a serious issue. However, she says that if catering continues to be outsourced, the current dining workers will lose “big, big business.” 

In his email to Anderson, Hershberger explained, “It has been proposed and outlined in the current Dining Services RFP that future catering (commencing July 12, 2022) be primarily exclusive to the on-campus food services provider. Purchases or food orders that total $250 or less would be permitted to seek services from a third-party provider, no strings attached.”

In his follow-up email to the Justice, he said that “primarily exclusive” means that while the University will encourage groups to utilize the company that Brandeis selects for campus dining services to cater events, the proposed RFP states that “Brandeis reserves the right to engage other sources for catering services in the case of meals to support cultural events when the awarded Bidder is unable to satisfactorily fill the need.”

During the phone interview with the Justice on Sunday, Merisier said that when it comes to cultural events, the catering team is open to requests for all types of food and has consistently been able to successfully fulfill these requests. He said that before September 2020, campus groups were able to request “waiver vouchers” that, when granted, allowed them to utilize outside vendors to cater events.

When asked about his response to potential concerns from students regarding limited options at the demonstration on Wednesday, Merisier said, “We’re open to any and every conversation. We're always open for feedback from students, clients, staff — we're open for anything, but the resolution we want is to have our jobs back.”

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Students in the Brandeis Leftist Union gather to support the union dining workers.

Speaking to the Justice at Wednesday’s demonstration, BLU member Phoebe Ogun ’25 asked of Brandeis students, “Please join us in the fight to stand with the dining workers and to stand with other workers who are being exploited or underpaid or mistreated by Brandeis. Let’s stand with them and let’s stand together so that we can make Brandeis a better place.”

Josh Benson ’23, a leading organizer for the BLU, said that by supporting the current dining workers petition and other efforts to support workers and labor unions at Brandeis (including the ongoing effort to push for higher pay for library workers), students are helping to build “popular power” on campus that will allow them to push the administration to address issues such as student-worker wages and poor residence hall conditions. “As a student, you should not see yourself separate from labor, but totally conjoined to it. And this is your fight, too,” Benson said.