On Friday, March 11, following a student sit-in, workers and students gathered for a student-organized rally to push Brandeis to agree to the demands of the Brandeis Leftist Union’s “Petition to Support Union Dining Workers” ahead of the upcoming dining vendor bid decision.

This past Friday, many of the familiar faces normally seen working in the dining areas across campus could be found marching alongside students and other staff, shouting chants such as “Every minute, every hour, build student worker power!” 

“We want Brandeis to listen to our voice, that’s it,” Nick Abrahim said, a dining worker who has been working at Brandeis for five years, as he walked with the group of approximately 50 students and workers. 

The protest was held in support of Brandeis’ dining workers, and it was another in a series of efforts by students and workers to get the University to agree to the demands of the “Petition to Support Union Dining Workers,” created by the students of the Brandeis Leftist Union in November 2021. 

The petition was made in response to dining workers’ concerns about changes made in late 2020 that made it so that catering for on-campus events is no longer exclusive to the Sodexo catering staff, which is made up of members of the Brandeis dining workers union. It also aims to address workers’ fears that they would not be guaranteed their current jobs, hours, and benefits if Brandeis selected a new dining vendor in the upcoming bid decision. The petition has been signed by over 550 Brandeis students, as well as 15 student groups.

The demands of the petition, which are directed to University President Ron Liebowitz, Director of University Services Jeffrey Hershberger, and the University, include guaranteeing job security for all dining service workers and honoring their current union contracts, even if the school selects a new vendor, as well as agreeing to utilize current unionized workers for all dining, catering, and event services and changing the dining contract to guarantee exclusive catering to the current dining staff.

The rally began at the north end of campus, above the Usdan Student Center, and it ended outside of the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center and the Gryzmish Center, which house the University’s administrative offices.

There, the group was joined by the students who had been participating in the sit-in at Gryzmish, which had ended only a few minutes earlier. Like the rally, this sit-in was organized by the BLU. The sit-in began at 11 a.m. and ended just before 3 p.m., during which time the Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky and Vice President for Campus Operations Lois Stanley fielded questions from students. Approximately 30 students participated in the sit-in.

Outside the administrative buildings, dining workers Lucia Hsiung and Kevintz Merisier spoke briefly to the crowd, as did Josh Benson ’23 of the BLU and members of the library and facilities workers unions at Brandeis.

Hsiung thanked everyone who has supported the dining staff, while Merisier spoke about what he called the “partial victory” of all five potential dining vendors committing to hiring all current union workers and maintaining the benefits in the current dining workers union contract if selected as the new dining contractor at Brandeis. 

“Yeah, we did have the union stay on campus, full benefits. But catering jobs are still up in the air,” Merisier explained to the gathered protesters. “I call that a partial victory, not a full victory for us yet.”

Caterers’ concerns

Merisier is one of the catering supervisors at Brandeis and says that catering events used to be the main component of his work. He told the Justice that this is no longer the case, despite on-campus events happening consistently during the past two semesters. He attributes this change to the fall 2020 removal of the policy that guaranteed exclusive catering for medium and larger events on campus to current union workers at Brandeis.

This issue was first brought to the attention of students at the end of the fall 2021 semester when BLU created the petition. Since then, Merisier says that when it comes to the union catering staff being hired for events on campus, things have only gotten worse.

“We don’t have any catering,” Merisier said, speaking to the Justice after the rally. He described seeing large events happening on campus in recent months that Brandeis’ dining staff was not hired to cater and said that other dining workers have started notifying him and the other catering staff when they see workers and vehicles from other catering companies on campus.

Though the hours he lost from catering have been replaced with what he calls “filling holes” at various retail dining locations on campus, he believes that these positions are temporary, claiming that the position he is currently filling at Einstein Bros. Bagels is listed as a job opening online. Merisier explained that for him and the other catering staff, being replaced by outside catering companies is about more than hours and pay. 

“Number one, I’m a caterer,” he said. “How often does someone have a job they love doing?”

Seda Ghazaryan, another catering supervisor at Brandeis, echoed Merisier’s sentiments in an interview with Justice after the rally. When it comes to catering, she says that for her and the rest of the catering staff, “that’s our passion.”

Rebecca Ganley, who works at The Stein, attended the rally with Ghazaryan. Speaking to the Justice, she thinks that the University’s decision to change its catering policy is unfair. She explained that she went to the protest to support her friends on the catering staff.

“We’re a family, we have to protect one another,” Ganley said.

February rally

A similar protest was held on Feb. 18 and was attended by upwards of 70 students and workers. Michaela McCormack ’23 spoke to the Justice on March 6 and said that both the BLU and dining workers have been pleased with the support and enthusiasm they have received from students. “[The] Students’ presence in this campaign has made everyone in this campaign feel more confident,” McCormack said.

During the rally in February, BLU members attempted to deliver the “Petition to Support Union Dining Workers” directly to Director of University Services Jeffrey Hershberger and President Liebowitz. The students arrived to find that neither administrator was present in his office at the time, something that BLU member Josh Benson called “frustrating and disrespectful” during a March 7 interview with the Justice.

“We’re willing to go as far as it takes for [the administration] to not just be aware but to capitulate to our demands,” Benson said. They explained that by continuing to hold rallies and other forms of protests, students and workers “demonstrate to the University that these things don’t go unnoticed, and that we will continue to show up in force and escalate if these demands are not met.”

Benson added that the demands being petitioned and rallied for by these actions are not extreme. “It’s asking [the University] to respect and to continue the existing relationship they have with workers,” they explained.

Administration responds

When asked to comment on the administration’s response to the February rally and the University’s position, Hershberger provided a statement by email on March 7: “Brandeis is aware of the concerns of our valued colleagues in dining as we undergo the RFP process for Dining Services. We are keeping their concerns in mind along with our students’ expectations of high-quality, reasonably-priced dining and catering options.” 

Benson called this statement a deflection, citing it as an example of what they see as continued attempts by the University to pit students and workers against each other. “It’s cynical and it’s harmful and is a clear ploy by the University to undermine solidarity between workers and students,” Benson said.

During the March 11 sit-in, Uretsky and Stanley would not agree to commit to guarantee the return of exclusive catering to unionized Brandeis workers. However, they said they will look into the issue further in the coming weeks as the decision of which company Brandeis will select as the new dining vendor is finalized. 

Without making any concrete agreements or guarantees, Stanley suggested that requiring current Brandeis dining staff to be hired to work at all catered events on campus is something that she could see “for sure” being part of the new dining contract. 

This would mean that departments or clubs could get food from outside sources for small events as long as the cost would be below a specific dollar amount. Brandeis is currently considering $250 as the limit, which is in-line with the catering policies that existed prior to the 2020 change. Any event requiring catering staff present to set up or serve food would need to be staffed entirely by Brandeis’ current dining workers. 

“I could see staff [for catered events] for sure, needing to be exclusive. And then, under $250 and non-staffed, there’s some flexibility there. But maybe $250 isn’t the right number,” Stanley said.

She offered to speak to Sodexo and the University Investment Management office to find more information to help determine what dollar amount would make the most sense to serve as this threshold. 

Speaking to the Justice after the sit-in, Uretsky and Stanley called the dialogue between themselves and the students “very constructive.” Stanley explained that retaining the current dining workers is part of the “Request for Proposals” that Brandeis provided to potential vendors and is something that all five bidding vendors have agreed to.

Uretsky and Stanley said they learned more about the “subtleties” involved in the issue of exclusive catering, and Stanley “promised to investigate” this issue.

Stanley and Uretsky expect to provide responses next week about the issues brought up by students during the sit-in, according to a March 14 statement sent to the Justice by Assistant Vice President for Communications Julie Jette.

“We’ll be back”

“Every victory emerges from our unified struggle for justice and against the capitalist University,” Benson told the crowd of protestors at Friday’s rally.

As the protest came to an end, they delivered some final impassioned words to the workers and students gathered before them. “Hopefully there won’t be a next time and the University will capitulate to our every demand,” they said, “But if there is a next time, you will be damn sure to see us out here!” 

Their words were met with cheers from the group, which quickly turned into chants of “We’ll be back!”