After striking on December 11, Princeton Public Schools food service workers continue to protest their current contract with food-services provider Nutri-Serve.
The strike involved the majority of PPS cafeteria workers picketing outside of their respective schools instead of coming to work for the day.
This school year, Nutri-Serve replaced Chartwells as the district’s provider because of pressure from parents calling for healthier lunches. “The school district and the parents weren’t happy with the food that was being offered to the students and the way that it was being prepared,” said PPS Food Service Director Joel Rosa. “[Nutri-Serve] was willing to meet the school district’s needs.”
Food service workers are employees of the food service provider; therefore unlike district employees whose contracts are negotiated with the district, they must bargain with their company regarding any changes.
Although there was a switch to a new food service company, all employees maintained their jobs. Workers were under the impression that their contract with Chartwells would not expire until September 2015 or until a new contract was negotiated.
However, Nutri-Serve made several alterations to the contract without informing workers. Some of these changes included a decrease in the number of paid holidays, a decrease in the number wage increases, and the elimination of paid jury duty days.
Since then, the union representing the cafeteria workers, Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, has filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against Nutri-Serve. In addition, workers have been distributing flyers to Princeton community members about the negotiations, encouraging the community to call Nutri-Serve’s owner, Karen Fynan, and speak on their behalf. “Your cafeteria worker needs your help … tell [Fynan] that your cafeteria worker needs a fair contract,” the flyer read.
Rosa said that part of the reason why workers may be unhappy with their new contract is that higher standards are expected of them with the switch to Nutri-Serve. “Last year, most students were not satisfied with the food. So, there is a lot more hand involvement with the food than there was before. I can see how that would be more stressful on their part, but that’s what’s required,” he said.
In the new contract, Nutri-Serve is allowing the workers one holiday, compared to the six allowed in the Chartwells contract. Edith Villavicencio, Field Representative for SEIU, Local 32BJ, believes that this decrease is inappropriate. “[Nutri-Serve] knew exactly what the contract said before—it said six holidays. So, one holiday is definitely unacceptable,” she said at a February 24 Board of Education meeting. “When [workers should be] talking about what [they] are cooking for Thanksgiving, the workers may have to have to get another job, because they cannot afford to not get paid on the holiday.”
Another point of contention that the union has with Nutri-Serve is that Nutri-Serve does not allow the workers to contribute to any political funds and is therefore enacting unconstitutional policies. “Nutri-Serve has said that it is their philosophical belief not to allow us to voluntarily contribute to our political fund. By doing so they are eliminating our First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” read a union flyer.
On the day of the strike, students were served by stand-in workers. Despite the fact that they did not receive the same service, students believe that the workers’ actions were justified. “[Striking] is pretty much the only bargaining chip they have, so they should be able to use it,” said Andrew Barry ’15.
Students were not the only people that felt the effects of the strike. Rosa had to quickly find replacements for workers to serve lunch that day. “I had Nutri-Serve and food service directors that were able to come in from neighboring districts to help us serve food,” he said.
Despite the inconveniences, Rosa recognizes the workers’ ability to strike. “I think that the employees have the right to do what is best for them … If they feel adamantly that they deserve more, that’s fine,” he said.
According to Ray Liscik, a chef at PHS, the workers are not able to fully negotiate with Nutri-Serve. “They bring their attorney [to negotiation sessions], and we say we want to talk wages, and they say, ‘We have no money.’ We say we want to talk holidays, [they say], ‘We’re not giving you any more holidays.’ There’s no negotiation. It’s one-sided, and this is what we have been dealing with,” he said at the February board meeting.
On the other hand, Rosa believes that Nutri-Serve is offering employees a better contract than Chartwells did. “[The workers] had a contract with Chartwells last year, but … Nutri-Serve has benefits that are better than Chartwells,” he said.
Rosa cited the new number of sick days, salary, and medical insurance in his reasoning. “We are negotiating more sick days with them… For the employees that qualify for medical insurance, Nutri-Serve is willing to pay [for] 100 percent of their insurance, whereas Chartwells only paid [for] 80 percent,” he said.
Ever since coming to Princeton when the district made the switch to Nutri-Serve, Rosa has tried to create a better work environment for the staff. “A lot of [the workers] complained about not having a positive work environment in the past [with Chartwells]. Now … it is a very comfortable work environment,” he said. “I am here to make sure my employees are in a comfortable setting to work and that they are doing what they are supposed to.”
However, some students are worried that unhappiness with their jobs may cause the quality of workers’ food and services to decrease. “Their mood affects what they can make for the students … [and the] people around them,” said Selia Gupta ’18.
Villavicencio agrees that cafeteria workers’ content with their jobs has some effect on the students. “Workers are making sure that the kids are not thinking about [their hunger], but actually focusing on how they are going to pass their tests,” she said. “However … Nutri-Serve is not giving [the workers] anything. They want us to go backwards, instead of going forward.”
Rosa blames the stall in negotiations on miscommunication between the Nutri-Serve representatives and the workers. “This information [about the negotiations] has been communicated indirectly to them. If they really understood what we were trying to give them, I think they would probably settle by now. For some reason, the union is not helping them understand that Nutri-Serve is on their side, and that I am on their side,” he said. “Since we are still a new company … they are skeptical to make that decision and say that they are going to settle with what [we] are offering.”
Tara Gentry, the cafeteria supervisor at Community Park Elementary School, explained to board members just how important individual workers are to the children they serve. “I have this kid that is so embarrassed to get his food, that he will only take food from Ms. Tara. That kid makes me come to work every day,” she said at the board meeting. “I love my job, but I refuse to be disrespected … It’s so sad, because the kids suffer.”
Because of this inevitable consequence, Villavicencio believes that conflict affects everyone in the PPS district. “When a dispute like this happens, everyone suffers. The students, the teachers, the parents, and the workers suffer,” she said.
Students are also concerned with the workers’ well-being in the wake of the negotiations. “If [the workers] are unhappy, then being kind, compassionate human beings, we should do something about it,” Barry said. “It’s more about morality and being happy than it is about how it actually affects what they are doing for us.”
Ethan Hamilton ’15 believes students should get involved and advocate for their cafeteria workers. “We shouldn’t fix the problem because it affects the students, we should fix the problem because it affects the cafeteria workers,” he said.
However, community involvement in this issue as of now is minimal. “No one has approached me about how we can better support our workers,” Rosa said.
Because of the widespread nature of this issue, Gentry believes that Nutri-Serve will come to find that this situation will hurt them in the end. “You reap what you sow in life. If they don’t treat us right, what goes around comes around,” she said.