A string of protests across the country against one of the predominant food services providers at colleges and universities has resulted in 50 arrests – so far. The arrests are part of what activists promise will be stepped-up focus on the company Sodexo.
Last week students at Ohio State University rallied on campus before moving into President Gordon Gee’s office, where seven were arrested after they refused to stop chanting (two non-students were arrested as well). They wanted the university to cut its contract with Sodexo, the company that hires and manages 124 of Ohio State’s 1,800 concessions employees at its stadium and events center.
Critics have accused the company of limiting workers' rights and preventing them from forming unions -- charges the company denies.
United Students Against Sweatshops, the national network behind the Kick Out Sodexo campaign, says students on at least 30 campuses are involved. Thirty-eight have been arrested in two incidents this month at the University of Washington, as well as seven at Emory University. The students who were arrested at Gee’s office were part of a 100-person rally, about a third of whom attended the subsequent sit-in. Workers'-rights rallies continued throughout last week.
After the arrests, USAS issued a press release. “Students have been forced to take this dramatic action after two school years of meetings, investigations, petitions, rallies, public forums with Sodexo workers and a bureaucratic run-around from university administrators,” it said.
About 60 faculty members have since signed a petition in support of the arrested students, which they sent to Gee. Ohio State issued a statement following the arrests, saying it’s not involved in the Sodexo dispute, and the contract runs through June 2013. It did not say whether the university is considering or would consider ending the contract before that time or declining to renew it.
Western Washington University, where similar activities were going on, recently ended its 50-year contract with Sodexo. Students claimed a victory; the university said the decision was “based entirely” on company bids that came in after a request for proposals. “In terms of student protests at the University of Washington and elsewhere, we have been very clear on this point: there was no connection between student protests against Sodexo and the final decision on a new dining services vendor,” spokesman Paul Cocke said in an e-mail. Their selection of the company Aramark, one of Sodexo’s top competitors, “reflected careful evaluation of the companies’ proposals,” he said.
Sodexo has contracts with 650 colleges.
Last year, a Human Rights Watch report  on Sodexo found “violations of workers’ freedom of association.” The report found that managers used intimidation tactics, including threats that workers could be replaced if they went on strike for better wages and working conditions. “Despite claims of adherence to international standards on workers’ freedom of association, Sodexo has launched aggressive campaigns against some of its U.S. employees’ efforts to form unions and bargain collectively,” the report says. “In some instances, Sodexo has crossed the line to anti-union behavior unlawful under both U.S. law and international standards." For instance, in 2003, after a union drive but before the vote, Sodexo had "threat-filled, captive-audience meetings" and fired workers for union activity, the report says. Two years later Sodexo settled a lawsuit with that union and reinstated and awarded back pay to four employees.
In March, Sodexo filed a civil lawsuit against the Service Employees International Union “to stop the illegal campaign of extortion that the SEIU has been waging in the U.S. for over a year,” Sodexo said. The union launched a corporate campaign  that accuses Sodexo of a slew of things, including understaffing its worksites, poor food quality, wage theft and unsafe working conditions.
Jennifer Hart, a spokeswoman for Sodexo, said the company cares deeply about its employees. "SEIU makes allegations and spreads them without evidence. They also use isolated incidents and blow them up in ways that assert systematic patterns of abuse," she said. "I don’t want to go on the record and say we’re perfect. No company is perfect. But to portray us as this abuser of human rights is false.” She noted that Sodexo was an early signatory to the United Nations Global Compact and has been ranked for two consecutive years as a top company in the U.S. for diversity and inclusion by Diversity Inc.
While 15 percent of the company’s employees are unionized, a National Labor Relations Board investigation found enough evidence to pursue charges against Sodexo stemming from anti-union activity at Tulane and Loyola Universities last year. The board said Sodexo spied on workers and retaliated against employees for union activity, among other things.
Hart said SEIU is interested in the company only because SEIU “wants to become the dominant union in the industry,” and is pressuring employees to join. She also downplayed the extent of the protests. “I think it’s important to put this in perspective,” she said. “It’s really a handful of campuses.”
Nick Pasquarello, a USAS member and Ohio State junior who helped organize the protests there, said it was unfair to suggest that the students are acting based on SEIU's goals. But the issue was first raised by a graduate student and SEIU intern who is a part-time union organizer and also works with USAS, Pasquarello said, while insisting the intern "is not the reason we started this campaign."
Pasquarello also said SEIU Local 1 has allowed the students to use its office space and offered to help make signs for rallies. But he said the students have not received any financial assistance from the union, despite Hart's suggestion that SEIU had given some student groups money.
Pasquarello says the student efforts are distinct from those of the union because they’re focused only on their respective campuses. “We’re basically sending a message to these corporations, saying, ‘What you’re doing is not right, and as an educational institution that preaches rights of citizenship, it’s not OK for you to operate on our campus,’ ” he said. “It’s not a union issue that we’re fighting. We’re fighting why we even have a contract with the company. It’s a local human rights violator, and that reverberates in our community.”