‘When we fight, we win’: Unite Here Local 737 prevails with historic contract for Orlando hospitality workers

Sodexo food service workers at OCCC notch a win in the ‘red state’ of Florida

click to enlarge Angie McKinnon, chief negotiator for her union Unite Here Local 737, says the new pension in their contract at the OCCC is a major victory. - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Angie McKinnon, chief negotiator for her union Unite Here Local 737, says the new pension in their contract at the OCCC is a major victory.

Hospitality workers at the third-largest convention center in the country achieved major gains this week, setting a new standard for hospitality workers in the Central Florida region.

Restaurant, concessions and banquet workers at the Orange County Convention Center, who are directly employed by the multinational company Sodexo, won a new contract that delivers an $18 minimum wage for hourly food service workers this year and a $3 raise for workers above the minimum, retroactive to August 2022.

It's the highest minimum wage set for hospitality workers in Central Florida, per the workers' union, Unite Here Local 737.

“We have won a new standard for hospitality workers in Central Florida,” Angie McKinnon, the chief negotiator and financial secretary treasurer for Unite Here Local 737, said of the tentative agreement on Wednesday.

Previously, the minimum wage for Sodexo workers was just $13 an hour, far below the estimated living wage for single working adults in Central Florida, let alone working families with children or other dependents to feed, shelter and care for.

The pay raises offered in the contract, described as “life-changing” by McKinnon, rise above the standard set by Disney World in 2018, back when a coalition of unions there won a $15 minimum wage for thousands of low-wage Disney workers. That fully took effect in 2021 and prompted other major tourism employers such as Universal and SeaWorld to also increase employee pay.

The sentiment among convention center workers who fought for the new contract at the convention center was crystal clear. According to the union, workers unanimously approved the three-year agreement with Sodexo, with zero “no” votes.

Altogether, it delivers a $5.50 per hour raise for non-tipped Sodexo workers by August 2024, with another raise the year after, and — in what the union describes as a “history-making” achievement — a pension for full-time workers that’s fully funded by their employer.

“We all stuck together and fought for it. I mean, we just weren't gonna let the company bully us into what they want to give us.”

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“This is a large victory,” McKinnon, who has decades of service as a worker at Disney under her belt, emphasized. “Many of these workers have been in the building for 10 to 30 years with no pension until today. Every worker should be able to support themselves after they retire.”

The union had been negotiating a new contract with Sodexo, a global food and beverage services provider, since last August. But, over the course of several months, the union failed to come to a satisfying agreement with the company. 

Jeremy Haicken, president of the Local 737, told a radio station in Tampa in November that Sodexo, a company that’s had a testy relationship with labor unions in the U.S. and overseas, had shunned their economics proposal, which from the start had included an $18 minimum wage within the first year of the contract and a fully funded pension. 

Not only that, but the union said Sodexo had also failed to come up with a counter-offer of their own.

So, in November, workers increased the stakes: 235 Sodexo workers at the convention center voted unanimously to authorize a strike upon the expiration of their contract in December, as union workers at other convention centers across the country also considered their own escalations.

“My co-workers and I are ready to do what it takes to win the contract we need,” Jackeline Ponce, a retail worker of nine years’ standing at the Orange County Convention Center, said on a press call first announcing the strike authorization vote last year. 

Ponce, a member of the union’s bargaining committee, will now make $17 an hour under the contract, up from $13.60. That's an immediate raise that’ll increase to just over $18 in August, and rise another dollar next year. 

“We fought very hard for almost six months, but we had a victory,” Ponce said this week.

That victory, and the everyday work on the job, evidently required the devotion of significant time and energy. But still, there was nothing but excitement and a deep sense of pride emanating from the group of convention center workers and union staff who gathered less than a mile away from the convention center on Wednesday, outside of an Orange County Fire Station, to share the news with Unite Here union members across the country (and yes, press, too).

Local 737, based in Orlando, represents about 800 to 900 restaurant, concessions and banquet workers at the Orange County Convention Center (and 19,000 other tourism workers in Central Florida) who are directly employed by Sodexo. Sodexo, a multinational based in France, contracts food-service work out to various entities: cafeterias at universities and colleges, government agencies, hospitals, K-12 schools,  employee cafeterias for massive companies like Google and more. 

Locally, Sodexo contracts food-service work at locations including the Orlando International Airport, HCA Florida Poinciana Hospital, the Osceola Regional Medical Center, Rollins College and Disney World, where Sodexo workers are represented by Unite Here Local 362. 

Sodexo is the nation's largest federal food service contractor, serving 45.6 million meals annually to more than 160 military and U.S. federal government locations in 28 states. They’ve had a complicated relationship with unions like Unite Here and the Service Employees International Union, which Sodexo actually sued in 2011.

Sodexo has historically rebuffed allegations of anti-union behavior, often pointing to the hundreds of collective bargaining agreements it has with unions across the United States (including with many Unite Here locals).

Paul Pettas, a spokesperson for Sodexo, said in a statement to Orlando Weekly that its new contract with Local 737 was “the result of a collaborative negotiation and strong engagement from both parties,” adding, “We remain fully committed to helping secure long-term vitality for the individuals who have careers with us at the Orange County Convention Center and continuing to be economic catalysts for the greater Central Florida economy.” 

At the Orange County Convention Center, workers put everything on the line, and were damn well ready to strike if Sodexo didn’t come back to them with a contract ASAP that could provide sufficient relief for the impact of rising inflation and cost of living increases. Orlando's high cost of living has caused many low-wage workers in the local tourism industry to skip meals, fall behind on rent or mortgage payments, and suffer family or relationship problems because of stress about money, according to a report released by the union last year.

Average rent for a one-bedroom in Orlando, for instance, grew nearly 30% from January 2020 to December 2022. 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.

So, the workers, who serve tens of thousands of people through massive events, conferences and conventions, organized.

“I think that in the beginning, they [Sodexo] thought that it was really a little bluff, [that] they could just push us over,” James Robinson, a lead cook at the convention center who’s also on the union’s bargaining committee, told Orlando Weekly about their strike threat.

But they didn’t back down. “We all stuck together and fought for it. I mean, we just weren't gonna let the company bully us into what they want to give us,” said Robinson.

click to enlarge James Robinson, 64, celebrates a historic contract for himself and co-workers employed by Sodexo at the Orange County Convention Center on Jan. 26, 2022. - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
James Robinson, 64, celebrates a historic contract for himself and co-workers employed by Sodexo at the Orange County Convention Center on Jan. 26, 2022.

McKinnon, the union’s chief negotiator, said workers did all sorts of things to demonstrate solidarity with one another. “Any time you’ve got to stand up to the boss, it’s pretty scary, right?”

Workers wore three different pro-union buttons on the job, for instance — something that’s become a contentious issue in union campaigns at some Starbucks stores, despite federal labor law protecting the practice — with the Sodexo workers’ final button reading: “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

That’s nothing to scoff at in a metro area where less than 5% of private sectors are covered by a union. Not to mention in a state in which Republican politicians (like our current governor) reliably propose legislation year after year to hack away at union rights and workers’ rights more broadly — with, for instance, legislation intended to pre-empt local governments from enforcing living wage ordinances.

Union membership nationwide has dropped to a historic low, despite over 273,000 workers joining unions in 2022, but it’s victories like this by workers in environments that are difficult to organize, difficult to secure major gains in, that inspire and set life-changing new standards across the board, even for workers in non-union workplaces.

Robinson, the lead cook, is 64 years old and has worked at the Orange County Convention Center for 16 years. While he has a stake in the fight, he doesn’t make minimum wage. Before this new contract, he made $31.63 an hour as a lead cook. And after working all his life, he’s on his way out, he says, in the next few years or so. 

But he cares about what he'll leave behind. He told Orlando Weekly he wasn’t as actively involved with Local 737 when Sodexo workers first voted to unionize in 2017, and negotiated a contract the following year. This time around, he made it his mission to be more involved.

“I wanted to, you know, be part of the team, and set the standard for other workers that are going to be coming in,” he said. “We all felt that we needed a raise because of, you know, gas prices, rent, inflation, period,” he said. “So I wanted to be part of that fight. And I wanted to leave some kind of legacy.”

Isabel Castro, a retail worker at the convention center who made $17.50 prior to the new contract, also has an intrinsic desire to fight against injustice when she sees it. She was drawn to the union — despite working multiple jobs and lacking much free time outside of work — to advocate for a life of dignity and respect for herself and her coworkers.

She lives in Kissimmee with her mom, an 80-year-old retiree, and her daughter, who works at Disney. “I love my job,” she told Orlando Weekly, and she is “always working.” When she first immigrated to the country from Peru, back in 1991, she worked for Disney. But today, she works full-time at the convention center and cleans houses on weekends, sometimes doing cleanings after work. 

With the $3 raise in this new contract, she says, “Everything has changed now.” She hopes to spend more time with her family and to be able to stick to one job, instead of two or three.

On-call workers represented by the union, who make up most of the workers the union represents, also won the $3 raises in the new contract, in addition to free uniforms (before, workers had to pay for their own), and a better transportation system.

Before, in order to make it to work on time, workers would either have to pay for guest parking, park in a lot further away from the convention center (“which is not safe” when you’re getting off work late at night, McKinnon said) or sometimes get to work hours before the start of their shift to get free transportation over to the sprawling, 7-million-square-foot facility.

And those gains in the contract didn’t come easy.

Their vote to authorize a strike in November wasn’t just for show. “We were not kidding around,” Fransisco “Junior” Cadavid, a banquet worker on the union’s bargaining committee, said on Wednesday, holding his young son, Sebastian, tightly in his arms.

click to enlarge Francisco "Junior" Cadavid, a banquet worker at the Orange County Convention Center, speaks on his union's fight for a historic contract while holding his son. - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Francisco "Junior" Cadavid, a banquet worker at the Orange County Convention Center, speaks on his union's fight for a historic contract while holding his son.

And Sodexo knew it. McKinnon said the company hired something like 400 temp workers after a rumor floated around that they’d be striking in early January. For months this strike threat loomed over Sodexo and the convention facility, which attracts more than 1.5 million attendees and provides roughly $3 billion in economic impact to Central Florida annually.

A spokesperson for the convention center told Orlando Weekly they would default to Sodexo for comment on the contract, and did not answer a question regarding what kind of impact a strike would have had on the facility's operations, had that proceeded.

Hiring temp workers to cross the picket line in the event of a strike isn’t cheap. But in the end, Sodexo, which had previously drug its heels on bargaining with the union, capitulated to the union’s demands. The company agreed to both the raise for hourly workers and the pension for full-time workers that the union had risked potentially going on strike for.

This comes as Disney World workers represented by the Service Trades Council Union, a coalition of labor unions that includes Local 737, continue their own fight for an $18 minimum wage. The Walt Disney Company, whose parks division made $28 billion in revenue last year, recently unveiled a “best offer” for workers that falls short, according to the unions, offering a path to a $20 minimum wage over the next five years.

The STCU, representing over 40,000 Disney workers, is recommending that cast members reject Disney's best offer. Workers will be voting whether to approve the offer next week.

Sodexo workers at the Orange County Convention Center, for their part, are hopeful for what lies ahead, and proud of what they accomplished together — not just for themselves, but potentially for the industry as a whole, should other hospitality and service employers rise to meet the occasion, with or without their own strike threat.

“Dreams can come true,” Castro said to Orlando Weekly in Spanish, which she primarily speaks at home. “If you can come together to fight and not just do it on your own, but get together with other people, you create the strength to be able to fight for a good cause.”

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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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