U Miami Cafeteria Workers Get a Raise

The union says it’s a huge victory. It’s a win, but I’d call it a medium win.

Below I reproduce the SEIU’s press release, then add some comments.



Coral Gables, FL—350 cafeteria workers voted overwhelmingly to ratify a first contract with UMiami food service contractor Chartwells Dining Service, ending a two-year struggle that now has EARNED them significant gains in wages and benefits.

The new contract is “a huge step forward” for the UM workers after a long struggle, 32BJ SEIU Florida Director Eric Brakken said. “It has been a long and hard fight, but ultimately worth it.”

Linda Bellinger, a member of the workers’ bargaining committee, called the contract a “relief” and the start of something good for her co-workers.

“What we’ve learned through our struggles here is that the road to victory begins with us standing together and fighting back,” Bellinger said. “We love working at UM and taking care of the students, faculty and staff here. Now, we can begin to afford to take care of our own families too. We fought for this and we won.”

Highlights of the three-year deal include:

  • Immediate 45 cents per hour increase for workers with at least four years of seniority; 35 cents hourly pay increases for workers with less seniority and a $50 signing bonus for everyone, with the wage increases retroactive to July 1st. Chartwells raised its minimum hourly wage rate from $8.00 to $9.30 during the workers’ campaign to organize themselves into a union, so those with the least experience already made gains in the past couple of years.
  • All workers will receive 25 cents hourly pay increase in the second year of the contract which, with workers moving into the 32BJ health insurance plan, actually comes to 73 cents per hour more than what the contractor currently pays for insurance.
  • A 35 cent hourly pay increases for every worker on July 1, 2015, the start of the contract’s third and final year. Instead of a system that workers describe as often capricious, wage increases are guaranteed for everyone under the new contract.
  • Health insurance: Workers will move on Jan. 1, 2015 from a current system where they pay 30% of all medical costs into the 32BJ SEIU health insurance plan, which carries no deductible and typically just $20 co-pays. Should they get sick, workers will have significantly lower out of pocket costs, protecting them from the leading cause of bankruptcy in the nation. The Jan. 1, 2015 introduction of workers’ into the 32BJ health insurance plan coincides with the Employer Mandate part of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Perhaps more importantly, workers won a slew of procedures that ensure respect in the workplace. These include a grievance process to allow workers to challenge unfair discipline and other decisions by management; restrictions on Chartwells’ ability to reduce workers’ hours in response to wage increases or because a worker stayed overtime earlier in the pay period; and regular joint “labor management” to deal with issues of respect on the job.

One worker leader who can appreciate these procedures better because of her own experiences is Betty Asbury, a UM cashier who was fired for no mistake of her own earlier this year but was reinstated after hundreds of UM students stepped up and demanded justice for her.

Asbury said this first contract is a victory not just for her and her co-workers but also for UM students, faculty and staff who all stood with the workers during their struggle.

“This shows the strength that you can get when you pool your efforts,” Asbury said. “Me and my co-workers at Chartwells came together and decided to fight for respect, dignity and good wages and affordable benefits. First came the union, which we were fortunate to join 32BJ earlier this year. Now we have a first contract. I cannot tell you how happy I am right now.”

Before winning the first contract, many of the food service workers earned as little as $10,000 a year, often needing to supplement their incomes with public assistance for housing and food stamps to make ends meet.

Brakken said workers now have a permanent organization and voice on campus to keep fighting to improve their jobs in the future. Between UNICCO/DTZ, Chartwells and the hospital, nearly 3,000 UM workers are now represented by SEIU.

This new deal could be a boon to historically black neighborhoods of Greater Miami, where most of UMiami Chartwells’ cafeteria workers live, Brakken said, communities like Overtown, Liberty City, Opa Locka, Coconut Grove, and South Miami.

Miami is one of the poorest and most unequal cities in the nation, with one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. By turning poverty-wage jobs into stable, family-sustaining jobs during tough economic times, 32BJ SEIU is helping reclaim the dream of middle-class life.

Last I heard, the Miami-Dade living wage was $ 12.06 per hour. This contract provides a pay increase, but wages are still significantly below that benchmark. This is why I can’t call it a huge win.

The improved medical benefits sound like an important step (although I have no idea how they compare to, say, an ACA Silver plan — not that the workers would have been eligible for one, since they have an employer-provided insurance option) and the institution of regular union-style grievance procedures is also going to be a net plus for some.

So, yes, any raise is a real win in this still high-unemployment economy especially for relatively low-wage labor. But I think at most this is a medium win: the bottom line is that the average worker is still under the Miami-Dade living wage guideline. Nevertheless, I’m glad for them and us that we have averted a strike.

A medium win beats nothing by a mile.

Previously: No UM Food Workers’ Strike After All? | Discourse.net ( April 24, 2013)

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