Near Orlando, dining hall workers at an exclusive private college push hard for union protections

Food service workers at Rollins College are in fact employees of Sodexo, one of the world’s largest multinational corporations

click to enlarge The arched entryway to the leafy Rollins College campus in Winter Park, Florida - photo: Unite Here Local 362
photo: Unite Here Local 362
The arched entryway to the leafy Rollins College campus in Winter Park, Florida

Less than one month after Sodexo dining workers at the Orange County Convention Center won a historic contract with their union, delivering a $5 per hour raise for their lowest-paid workers and a pension, dining service workers at Rollins College, a private liberal arts college near Orlando, are going public with their own campaign to unionize with Unite Here.

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Unite Here is a labor union that represents 300,000 working people across the United States and Canada, including thousands of hospitality and tourism workers in Central Florida, from Disney World to local hotels and the Orange County Convention Center.

The union drive at Winter Park's Rollins College, an institution with a non-union workforce that’s just as exorbitantly expensive for students as it is wildly profitable for Sodexo, is months in the making, or years, depending on who you ask.

At about 10 a.m. on a Thursday, a couple dozen people — many wearing red Unite Here T-shirts — gathered on the sidewalks and street corners outside the Rollins campus, holding pink flyers that read, in part, “Sodexo food service workers in Unite Here across the country are fighting for raises and a fair contract.”

click to enlarge Unite Here Local 362 union members pass out flyers in support of Sodexo workers at Rollins College unionizing. - photo: Unite Here Local 362
photo: Unite Here Local 362
Unite Here Local 362 union members pass out flyers in support of Sodexo workers at Rollins College unionizing.

A handful of those gathered Thursday were union staff. Some were Disney World workers, who are also unionized with Unite Here (and who are embroiled in their own labor fight) helping out in solidarity, and some were Sodexo employees at Rollins — off the clock, of course — who spoke to Orlando Weekly about what they’re dealing with, what they’re up against and why they’re forming a union.

A lack of bargaining power, communication barriers and a desperation to keep one’s job have served to help maintain the status quo for Rollins’ frontline cooks, chefs, servers, dining area cashiers — until now.

click to enlarge Student Sanjula and Sodexo employees Liam Gundy and Mateo Herrera gather outside the Rollins campus in support of the Sodexo union. - photo: Unite Here Local 362
photo: Unite Here Local 362
Student Sanjula and Sodexo employees Liam Gundy and Mateo Herrera gather outside the Rollins campus in support of the Sodexo union.

Since August, dining service workers at Rollins College have been quietly organizing with Unite Here Local 362, having conversations about changes they’d like to see in their working conditions — and they want both Sodexo and the college (which has a contract with Sodexo) to show their support for allowing a fair process.

Last year, a committee of worker leaders gathered about 36 signed union cards from the Rollins Sodexo workforce — out of about 60 to 90 workers total — to present to their employer as proof of their desire to unionize.

There are two ways to gain formal union recognition in the United States: By filing a petition for an election (which can take weeks or months to put together) signed by at least 30% of the workforce, or by what’s known as a “card check.” That is, an employer may choose to recognize a union without an election if the workers provide evidence — typically, signed cards authorizing a union to be their collective bargaining representative — showing that a majority of workers support unionization.

Because Unite Here already has a national contract with Sodexo, they are asking the company to recognize the union at Rollins College through a card-check, rather than forcing workers to go through the process of an election.

The possibility of union protections couldn’t come at a more important time, several Sodexo workers at Rollins told Orlando Weekly. Average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Winter Park rose more than 30% from February 2021 to February 2023, as the Central Florida region at large faces an ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

And while some neighboring areas in Orange and Osceola counties can run cheaper, rent (let alone a home purchase) is out of reach for many of Central Florida's working families, especially those who (like workers in Rollins’ dining facilities) make less than a living wage in Central Florida.

In the Orlando metro area, a living wage is estimated at $18.64 per hour for a single adult with no kids, or $36.40 if you have at least one child.

Some of the Sodexo dining workers, who make in the ballpark of $15 an hour, also face a long commute — common for those who can’t afford to live anywhere near Winter Park — which only adds another cost to everyday expenses such as food, gas and childcare.

When asked why they want to unionize, better healthcare benefits, better scheduling, more job security, higher pay, as well as a pay rate that takes into consideration a worker’s seniority were common responses.

But forming a union (beyond the obvious hurdles, such as living in a state not known for being labor-friendly) hasn’t been easy.

“People are definitely scared,” Vincent Padden, one of the workers, told Orlando Weekly.

Padden, young with long, bleached-blonde hair and a soft tone, has worked in food service at Rollins for about a year and a half. He began working there full-time, but now works part-time, juggling another job that can offer better pay and more consistent scheduling.

click to enlarge Vincent Padden, a Sodexo dining worker at Rollins College, explains why he's supportive of forming a union. - photo: Unite Here Local 362
photo: Unite Here Local 362
Vincent Padden, a Sodexo dining worker at Rollins College, explains why he's supportive of forming a union.

He’s supportive of the union effort, and hasn’t been shy about it. But he and co-worker Grant Donovan (also pro-union) said many others, including longtime workers, are scared to publicly voice support for the union, or to even be seen talking to pro-union co-workers under the watchful eyes of Sodexo managers, for fear of losing their jobs.

“Nobody will talk to you,” Padden shared, explaining that Sodexo managers are keeping close tabs on everyone, even moving pro-union workers from larger dining areas to smaller areas that staff fewer workers, thus reducing the likelihood of organizing discussion.

“It has taken me weeks to be able to just talk to her about how her day was,” Padden said of one co-worker.

“We’re not even talking about anything other than, like, ‘How was your day?’” added Donovan, who, outside of work, studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

According to Unite Here Local 362, many of the dining workers at Rollins College are people of color and immigrants.

Many have families to feed, yet make the same amount (or less) than new hires, according to Donovan, who said the person who trained him six months ago — with more than 10 years of service under their belt — made less than he did. “It’s crazy,” Donovan said.

According to Mateo Herrera, another Sodexo employee, a lot of the workers are also monolingual, speaking only Spanish. He says this limits their job opportunities, making the idea of stirring the pot with their employer even more daunting.

“They’ve been scared by the administration,” said Herrera, who’s worked for Sodexo for about four months. “And you know, they don’t feel like they have a right to ask for these things.”

One co-worker, Padden shared, broke down crying when he paid a visit to her home, devastated that she wasn't able to afford to take her young daughter out for her birthday.

She was a mom of four, cramped in a studio apartment, separated from another rental unit merely by curtains. “She, you know, had to take out a credit card to be able to take her daughter to her birthday,” said Padden. “That shouldn't be a luxury, having to beg your employer to afford. You should be able to take your little baby out for her birthday.”

The Sodexo workers at Rollins College make about $15 per hour minimum, according to the union. But that pay generally doesn’t go up, unless you advance to a different position, even if you’ve worked there for years.

Sodexo employees at Loyola University in New Orleans, a private college with a radical history of working class activism, have shared similar accounts of stagnant wages. They’re also organizing with Unite Here, and went public with their organizing campaign last year.

Sodexo did not respond to Orlando Weekly’s inquiries about pay at Rollins College.

A global food service contracting company based in France, Sodexo meanwhile reported $22 billion in revenue last year, in what the company described as a “strong recovery” from losses in 2020 and 2021.

Their last quarterly earnings results for this fiscal year also showed a 9% increase in revenue in the company’s education sector specifically, attributed in part to a “pick-up” in event and university catering services.

With 160,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada, the company makes money by contracting food-service work out to public institutions, such as university campuses, as well as private companies, like Google — where 4,000 cafeteria workers quietly unionized during the pandemic.

“We're going to win,” said Grant Donovan, one of the Sodexo workers who supports the union. “Write that down.”

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Rollins College, a private institution that charges thousands of dollars for meal plans that are mandatory for students who reside on-campus, has outsourced its dining services to Sodexo since 1998.

Outsourcing food services to one of the so-called “Big Three” of U.S. campus food services — Sodexo, Aramark and the Compass Group — is often touted as a cost-saving measure.

This might be particularly true at Rollins College, where college employees (and dependents) are eligible for benefits such as free tuition. This can otherwise cost students upward of $58,000 to $70,000 per year.

But, as Sodexo employees, the dining workers are not eligible for that benefit — a fact that’s not lost on the workers.

“The people who are working here and running this place, and making sure people here are fed and the facilities are clean, are making absolute terrible wages with no benefits, with no health care,” said Padden. “And they don't get the same benefits that hoity-toity rich Winter Park people get,” he added.

In Winter Park, an incorporated city with a population that's about 74% white, the median household income is $88,688 and the per capita income is about double that of neighboring Orlando, at $67,032, according to U.S. Census data.

Healthcare benefits are available to full-time Sodexo workers at Rollins, but workers say it’s so expensive, and offers so little coverage, that few people actually buy into it.

But one of the most significant grievances workers have is that Sodexo reportedly lays off dining workers at Rollins when school isn’t in session — during summer breaks and winter holidays — forcing workers to reapply (and typically get hired back) every single time.

On Thanksgiving and over Christmas Break, Sodexo managers will make do themselves, keep their “favorites” on staff, as needed, but lay off everyone else, according to accounts from multiple workers.

This creates instability and inconsistency as workers are kicked off the payroll for weeks or months on end, forcing them to find work elsewhere or otherwise go without pay — a situation that can be devastating for single parents and families.

More than that, workers allege that Sodexo has, in more than one case, prevented laid-off workers from securing unemployment assistance during breaks by telling the state that workers were fired “with cause.”

In Florida, to secure unemployment benefits, the state must confirm you were fired without cause. Sodexo did not respond to Orlando Weekly’s request for comment in response to this allegation.

But it was an escalation in intimidation tactics, over three successive days last week, that prompted workers to go public with their intent to unionize.

Last week, on Wednesday, several union staffers were thrown off campus by campus security, according to Unite Here Local 362 Vice President Jeremy Yassen.

The next day, Sodexo management allegedly sicced campus security on four UCF students who were passing out flyers in support of the unionization campaign. According to one of those students, Enrique Escoto, campus security then called Winter Park police, who gave them trespass warnings.

click to enlarge Trespass warning issued by Winter Park police on the private Rollins College campus. - photo: Enrique Escoto
photo: Enrique Escoto
Trespass warning issued by Winter Park police on the private Rollins College campus.

Just a day later, Rollins College students with the campus chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) were also approached by security during a tabling event on-campus.

One student (who wasn’t there at the time) said the group, who were not tabling for the union campaign at the time, had gotten a permit for tabling weeks before.

“There's just a climate of uncertainty and fear right now,” Sanjula, a 21-year-old student who studies philosophy and sociology at Rollins, told Orlando Weekly. “We feel like we can't show support for the union without fearing for campus safety, the police being called on us, and I think that that's really an uncomfortable and scary situation to be in as students.”

Sodexo has a long, sordid history of union-busting behavior, as Orlando Weekly previously reported — from firing union leaders to surveilling employees on the job and pulling workers aside to speak ill of unions. As the Economic Policy Institute points out, coercive and retaliatory behaviors during union drives while fairly common, are illegal.

Sodexo, for its part, refuted allegations of anti-union behaviors at Rollins College.

“Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, as proven by the hundreds of CBAs [collective bargaining agreements] we have in good standing with unions across the country,” a spokesperson for Sodexo told Orlando Weekly in a statement.

Sanjula also believes Rollins College has a responsibility to ensure a fair unionization process, by which workers can, without interference, have their say.

“Workers have the right to a fair process, but it doesn’t feel like that at the moment,” said Sanjula. “I think Rollins needs to do better and actively stand with the workers.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Rollins College told Orlando Weekly, “The College supports employees’ right to discuss unionization.” In response to student and workers’ concerns about intimidation from security, they added, “The College became involved in the union recruitment activities after several Sodexo employees filed complaints about harassment from union organizers. Rollins is a private campus, and we uphold our policies for the safety and security of all campus community members.”

News of the campaign has also trickled down to faculty. Faculty of Rollins' College of Liberal Arts passed their own resolution late last year supporting the Sodexo workers’ right to “seek a fair process to decide whether to form a union.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, who was recently contacted by students about the union effort, told Orlando Weekly on Friday she’s always proud to support unionization efforts and remains optimistic. “I think that the Sodexo workers have been such an essential part of the Rollins community and should be given the opportunity to decide if they want to unionize,” said Eskamani.

Rollins College students of the campus’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter plan to rally on campus (with a permit) at 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, in support of the dining workers’ unionization effort. The rally is expected to coincide with a college Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for noon.

“We're going to win,” Donavan, one of the Sodexo employees, told Orlando Weekly with a grin on Thursday, adding, “Write that down.”

click to enlarge Near Orlando, dining hall workers at an exclusive private college push hard for union protections
photo: Unite Here Local 362

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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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