“One movement, one voice!” chanted the purple-clad cafeteria workers as they marched up and down the Moore Street sidewalk in front of PHS on the snowy morning of December 11. Leading the line was Edith Villavicencio, a field representative for the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, and behind her followed employees who were on strike.
The strike affected school meals; breakfast was not served at John Witherspoon Middle School, and at lunch, limited options were available at the high school, as the deli was closed. Food was served by Nutri-Serve employees brought in to temporarily replace the cafeteria workers, as well as two workers who came to work despite the strike. “We really tried to prepare ourselves for any emergency that should come like this, and I think that we did pretty well for lunch, but some schools were affected for breakfast … We had some sort of inclination that this was happening, but most of our employees did not know [about the strike] until minutes before their shift actually starting,” said food services director Joel Rosa, who said he learned about the strike from employees who called him when they were informed of it in the morning.
Rosa said the only real issue for the Nutri-Serve replacements was managing the lunch check-out system. “I think that we held it together well the first time; we did have a few issues with the [Point Of Sale checkout] systems,” he said. “A lot of them felt comfortable by the end of the day, so if we happened to do it a second time, I think it’s going to be even better.”
The day-long strike came two days after the workers’ December 9 contract negotiations session with the food services provider Nutri-Serve. The various points of contention in the negotiations include compensation for sick days and jury duty, salary, and the number of uniform shirts provided to workers.
32BJ SEIU communications specialist Ana Maria Cruz said the negotiations team called a strike in response to lack of movement in the session. “The workers walked away feeling like they weren’t moving forward and that they were at a stall and that they have been at the stall for the last five sessions,” she said. “They came to the table to negotiate with us but not in good faith because normally it’s give and take … At least it’s negotiations, but [this] was an upfront ‘No, you are not getting your holidays paid, you are not getting your jury duty paid.’”
The strike lasted one day. “A strike that lasts for days and days isn’t effective or efficient, and it causes too much of a disturbance,” she said.
Rosa said workers are unlikely to strike again due to the cost of taking the day off. “Technically, in our books, it’s considered a ‘no call, no show,’ which is grounds for a termination. No one has been terminated for the strike; all of my employees are essential … to the cafeteria, for the students,” he said. “I’m not going to take it to that level, but I do have to put certain policies down that they understand the severity of the strike.”
Workers were hoping to gain the attention and support of parents and board members. “We want parents to come forward and say that something is going on. We need to support our cafeteria workers. They are taking care of our children, so we need to stand up for them,” Cruz said.
Nutri-Serve took over as PPS’s food services provider this school year, after the board chose to contract with them instead of the previous provider, Chartwells, due in part to pressure from parents for healthier lunches. Cafeteria workers are hired not by the district but by the company with which the district contracts. It is standard practice for the new company to hire the existing workers, which Nutri-Serve did, according to Cruz.
The workers’ contract with Chartwells was set to expire in September 2015. When switching over to Nutri-Serve, Cruz said cafeteria workers were under the impression that their previous contract with Chartwells would carry over for the year with Nutri-Serve, at least until a new contract was negotiated.
However, Cruz said Nutri-Serve made unilateral changes to the contract without informing the employees, who realized that something was wrong when they were not paid for Labor Day which had previously been a paid holiday. “The hope was that [Nutri-Serve] would honor the contract up until the time they negotiate. If they don’t want to honor it, that’s fine, but they need to inform the workers that they’re not honoring it,” Cruz said. “When they didn’t follow through and they didn’t let the workers know, that’s when we started filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board.”
Nutri-Serve is currently under federal investigation as a result of the Unfair Labor Practice charges filed by the Union.
Nutri-Serve did not respond to a request for comment.