On November 17, cafeteria workers handed out flyers in the main intersection informing students and parents of a potential strike. “Bring your own Lunch!” read the sheets. “Dear Students and Parents: Your cafeteria workers are preparing to Strike! The new food services company, Nutri–Serve Food Management, hired the cafeteria workers, without telling them that they will lose many of their existing benefits.”
Even though the district switched from Chartwells Food Services to Nutri-Serve this school year, contract negotiations between the workers’ union and Nutri-Serve have been going on since September. Unlike staff and administrators, cafeteria workers are hired by and must negotiate their contract with the company contracted by the district.
The letter, a response to unsatisfactory negotiations, urges parents and students to call Karen (Maier) Fynan, Nutri-Serve’s founder, owner, and president, to fairly negotiate a contract and thus prevent a strike from occurring. Although no date has been set for the strike, the workers voted on November 17 to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike if it feels negotiations have reached an impasse, said Ana Maria Cruz, a communication specialist of the New Jersey branch of Service Employees International Union, to which the cafeteria workers belong.
PHS food services director Joel Rosa, an employee of Nutri-Serve, said the main concerns of the workers surround their benefits. “Last year they had benefits that Chartwells offered … which Nutri-Serve … does not offer,” he said.
According to the flyer, “Nutri-Serve wants to eliminate paid holidays, deny decent wage increases [with] the minimum starting rate … less than $9.00, eliminate paid jury duty, [and] deny [workers] a voice by not allowing workers to voluntarily authorize contributions to [their] political action fund.”
However, Rosa said, “In certain areas of NJ possibly there might be some employees making less than nine dollars an hour … but here in Princeton, none of the employees are making less than nine dollars.”
Rosa also spoke of the 40-cent-per-hour raise employees received in September. “Nutri-Serve has been very lenient with the employees … Raises that they were supposed to receive at the end of the year, we received in September. So from [September] to December, they’re getting the raise,” he said.
Cruz said the wage to which the workers object is a starting salary that doesn’t reflect most of their salaries because of their long-standing employment in the district. Some of them, she said, have been working in the district for as many as 30 years. Still, employee benefits are the primary issue. “It’s everything else: it’s the benefits, it’s being able to go on jury duty or being able to take a day off when you’re sick,” Cruz said.
While Nutri-Serve is legally obligated to pay workers who miss work for jury duty, Cruz said the company wants to cut back on the number of paid days. This is also true of sick days; while Chartwells gave its employees six paid sick days, Nutri-Serve has offered its employees five. Cruz said another point of contention is that the company provides an inadequate number of uniforms to staff who must wear their uniform every day.
Due to the unilateral changes made by the company, Nutri-Serve is currently under investigation by the federal government, as employers have a “duty to refrain from unilateral action,” according to the National Labor Relations Act. “We’ve filed a charge already, so it’s … an Unfair Labor Practice [charge],” Cruz said. “They’ve made drastic changes about the contracts without … letting the union know.”
“I believe … yesterday was our fifth or sixth sit-down with Nutri-Serve … and what Nutri-Serve has decided to do was do unilateral changes, [which] changes the whole contract without notifying the union,” Cruz said.
The strike has not yet occurred. Rosa said the letter was a warning, not a promise of action. If the workers do go on strike, Nutri-Serve employees will be brought in to take their place so that students can continue to purchase lunch without significant disruption. “Nutri-Serve has a strong support system … It won’t be the same system as it is normally; there’ll probably be a few hiccups as far as having certain … Nutri-Serve employees that are well-trained to serve students perhaps don’t know where to find little things here and there,” Rosa said. “If anything, just a little bit more delay on the timing, but every single student will be fed.”
Three of the cafeteria workers spoke at the November 18 board meeting. “We have been faithful workers, and there’s people in the food service workers that have been here for 25 years, 14 years, 15 years, and it’s not fair,” said Bridget Guarini, who works in the cafeteria at John Witherspoon Middle School. “We’re not asking for anything that we didn’t have before. And we didn’t have too much before. We just want what we have now, because we can’t even make a living, and it’s not fair to us.”