Dining workers at Rollins College vote against unionizing after facing aggressive anti-union campaign

Cafeteria workers at Rollins, officially employed by contractor Sodexo, voted 33-39 against unionizing with Unite Here.

click to enlarge Photo of Rollins College campus in Winter Park, Florida. - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Photo of Rollins College campus in Winter Park, Florida.

After facing an onslaught of anti-union messaging from company management, dining workers at Rollins College narrowly voted against joining the labor union Unite Here.

Through a two-day election, with votes cast in-person on the college campus Thursday and Saturday, workers voted 33–39 against unionization, seven months after filing a petition with the federal labor board seeking a union election.

Workers in the affluent private college’s dining halls, including cooks, cashiers, and dining attendants, first filed a petition with the federal labor board to unionize in April. Workers leading the campaign told Orlando Weekly they quietly began organizing last August with the intent to join Unite Here Local 362, a hospitality union that represents thousands of workers at Disney World and over 100 contracted workers at Orlando International Airport.

Support from at least 30% of workers eligible for union representation is required to petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election.

The dining workers at Rollins — including cooks, dining room attendants and cashiers in the college’s dining areas — are officially employed by Sodexo, a global catering company that contracts with Rollins, in addition to other college and university campuses across the country.  It’s also the largest federal food service contractor in the United States, serving cafeterias for government agencies as well as for private companies like Google, where workers quietly organized during the pandemic.

“We’re very proud of the workers who took the risk to try and form their union,” Eric Clinton, president of Local 362, told Orlando Weekly on Monday, in response to the election results. “And we remain committed to workplace justice for food service workers in Central Florida.”

Workers at Rollins, a private liberal arts college with about 3,000 students enrolled as of Oct. 30, previously told Orlando Weekly they were organizing for higher pay, better scheduling, and improved healthcare and other benefits.

It’s been a hard-fought battle for workers to get a union election date, let alone develop camaraderie for a better shot at formal union recognition. Waiting seven months for an election is unusual.

But Sodexo, a France-based company with a long history of anti-union behavior, challenged their employees’ petition with the federal labor board. This caused a delay.

That kind of delay tactic — common among employers who oppose attempts by their employees to unionize — joined a stack of other anti-union tactics allegedly deployed by the company.

Back in August, Sodexo managers at Rollins College allegedly orchestrated an anti-union rally, in potential violation of federal labor law, scheduled one day before a pro-union rally.

A senior food service supervisor who isn’t eligible for union representation with Unite Here invited Orlando Weekly to the anti-union rally to get “another side to the story” after we previously reported on the organizing campaign.

A couple dozen workers showed up. Barbara Penaroque, the supervisor who invited Orlando Weekly, and who appeared to be leading the event, passed out T-shirts to workers bearing the words “No Union” covered with a red circle and slash (so, “yes union”?).

It's unclear where the T-shirts came from, and who purchased them. Penaroque told Orlando Weekly that workers used money out of their own pockets for the purchase. “We purchased the shirts and materials on our own,” she claimed over email, shortly after the event.

Workers at Rollins (some of whom weren’t eligible to join the union anyway) marched around on campus with anti-union signs, with one worker (hired just months before) holding a placard that read, “Groovin’ without a union!”

click to enlarge Sodexo employees gather for a "No Union" rally at Rollins College in Winter Park - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Sodexo employees gather for a "No Union" rally at Rollins College in Winter Park

Clothing retailer American Apparel allegedly pulled a similar stunt in 2016, according to reporting from In These Times.

One of the pro-union workers at Rollins later told Orlando Weekly the “No Union” rally “was bullshit,” alleging that some of the workers there were pressured by their supervisors or managers to attend the fishy demonstration while on the clock. It was organized one day ahead of a scheduled pro-union rally organized by Rollins College students.

Under federal labor law, it’s illegal for employers “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce” workers who are exercising their right to form or join a union. Unions can’t coerce workers either.

But federal labor law is notoriously employer-friendly. Pro-union members of Congress have been trying to strengthen labor protections through a proposal dubbed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act for years.

The union, Unite Here, filed a complaint with the federal labor board in May over the anti-union rally and other alleged violations of federal labor law.

Workers told Orlando Weekly earlier this year that Sodexo management was intimidating their coworkers over their organizing activity, making it hard to even have a conversation with them.

“People are definitely scared,” said Vincent Padden, then a part-time employee who juggled his job at Rollins with another job that offered higher pay and more consistent scheduling.

Many of the workers in dining services at Rollins are people of color, Padden and others explained. Some are immigrants with limited English speaking skills. Outside of Rollins, some of these workers have limited job opportunities and thus rely on the job to support themselves and their families.

click to enlarge Students and Sodexo workers in support of unionizing flyer outside the Rollins campus in support of a free and fair union election. February 2023. - photo courtesy of Unite Here Local 362
photo courtesy of Unite Here Local 362
Students and Sodexo workers in support of unionizing flyer outside the Rollins campus in support of a free and fair union election. February 2023.

Rollins College is a lucrative investment for Sodexo — their meal plans, mandatory for undergrads living on-campus, range from $2,615 to $3,405 per semester. As of 2019, all incoming students are required to live on-campus, with limited exceptions (e.g. students who are married and/or have dependents).

Rollins’ financial activity is somewhat shrouded by the fact that it isn’t a public institution. But the college’s 990 Tax Form for 2022 shows functional expenses of $9.6 million for dining services and food purchases — up from $7.7 million in 2019, ahead of a pandemic-era dip to $5.5 million the following year.

All in all, Sodexo appears to be doing just fine. While the company reported declining revenues during the early years of the pandemic, Sodexo reported $22 billion in revenue in 2022, up 21% from the year before.

Dining workers at Rollins College, meanwhile, earn hourly wages ranging from $15 to $20, according to federal documents. After Sodexo challenged their workers’ petition for a union election back in April, the National Labor Relations Board — which oversees this process — held a hearing to determine who would be eligible to vote. They gathered information on wages as part of this process.
click to enlarge Students and faculty at Rollins College march in support of dining workers' rights to organize for a union. - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Students and faculty at Rollins College march in support of dining workers' rights to organize for a union.

Straight out of the union busters’ playbook

A union election at Rollins College was stalled for months over a complaint from Sodexo disputing which workers they believed should be eligible to join the union.

Sodexo tried to insert food supervisors, who work closely with managers, into the pool of workers who’d be eligible for union representation, and therefore be able to vote in a union election.

This is a tactic that’s sometimes used by aggressively anti-union employers, like Amazon, to water down support for the union come election time.

“Even before the election gets underway, employers try to game the outcome in their favor, starting with legal maneuvers to block or delay the vote,” wrote Barry Eidlin, associate professor of sociology at McGill University, in a 2021 op-ed for the Washington Post. “They gerrymander the voting district (known as the ‘bargaining unit’), trying to pack in workers they believe lean anti-union and to carve out those they think are more pro-union.”

Supervisors, in addition to some other job classifications, are excluded from union rights granted under the National Labor Relations Act. Supervisors are defined under the NLRA as “any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward or discipline other employees, or responsibly direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action.”

The regional NLRB director, in a recent board decision on the Sodexo case, agreed that supervisors shouldn’t be included in the bargaining unit at Rollins College on the basis that they lack “commonality” with the other dining workers (for instance, how much they earn and workplace responsibilities).

Region 12 director David Cohen, however, disputed that they qualified as “supervisors” under the NLRA definition. “There is no evidence that food supervisors have the authority to transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge employees, or to adjust their grievances, or to effectively recommend such actions,” Cohen wrote.

A couple of workers, unnamed in the document, testified to the NLRB that they’d been verbally disciplined by supervisors over things like food safety and dress code.

But Cohen said there was “insufficient evidence” of those verbal warnings showing up in actual disciplinary records.

One worker testified to a NLRB hearing officer that he had been directed by supervisors to remove pro-union pins from his uniform on account of it being a “food safety concern.”

The worker was later confronted by a chef and supervisor (also an attendee of the “No Union” rally, vehemently against unionization), who explained to him the employer’s guidelines on jewelry.

The worker confronted described the interaction as “friendly” but “passive aggressive.” He said it felt “like” a warning.

Another worker, a cook, said he was told by a manager and a supervisor that it was unacceptable to talk about the “union vote” during the workday. There’s no evidence, however, that the cook was written up for it.

One worker also testified that a supervisor told him that they wouldn't be able to join the union because they, as a supervisor, had access to payroll. A manager disputed this in her own testimony, which the NLRB accepted.

The NLRB's board decision on the bargaining unit, which included election dates, wasn't released until early November.

The procedures of the election were contested. Sodexo requested that the election occur in-person, while the union requested a vote-by-mail election.

Mail ballot elections can be safer for workers, because this allows them to vote in the privacy of their homes, instead of a location where they can be surveilled by company managers.

Officially, however, the union argued that an in-person election would be “particularly problematic” because its workforce includes many employees for whom English is not their primary language, or who do not speak English at all.

Cohen, from the NLRB, disputed the idea that this would be a major issue. In a decision dated Nov. 2, Cohen ordered an in-person election on campus, subject to written permission from Rollins College. The college agreed, and the election took place on Thursday and Saturday.

Turnout was high — about 80% of workers eligible to vote cast their ballots. The final tally was 33–39, a loss for the union. Both parties (the union and employer) have five business days to file objections to the election. If no objections are filed, the result will be certified.

Meanwhile, the unfair labor practice complaint filed by the union in May, over Sodexo’s alleged violations of federal labor law, has yet to get a hearing as of publication.

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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