Former employees accuse Sodexo of taking malicious actions against union
BY: ALEX BERTSCH firstname.lastname@example.org
In July 2010, 39 dining service employees who worked for Sodexo at MSUM voted to unionize. Now, less than a decade later, there is no union for Sodexo employees at MSUM, after years of alleged interference and malicious actions by Sodexo.
After the July 2010 vote, workers for Sodexo joined the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 602 (AFSCME), who already represented 165 campus employees. However, Sodexo was slow to negotiate a contract with the union, despite already having contracts with AFSCME for St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University Mankato food services at the time.
On February 3 of 2011 , almost a third of Local 602’s members marched through campus buildings demanding that Sodexo “negotiate now.”
Retired MSUM Locksmith, and former Local 602 President Dave Renecker told the AFSCME newsletter at the time that for the dining services workers, “it’s been a long, slow process. They’re in the kitchen every day, and the boss is screwing with them every day.”
Renecker also claimed that the MSUM administration had sent the union an email that suggested the march should have been approved in advance. At the time, the administration claimed that it had nothing to do with negotiations.
Renecker and dining services employee and union organizer Jill Ortiz, both recall an incident with a cubicle-style mailbox that had been purchased by the union for Sodexo workers and installed in the Sodexo break room.
“We set it up when we were trying to organize them, so that we could get literature to each and every employee no matter what their shift was,” Renecker explained. “And Sodexo management took that off the wall and destroyed it. They threw it away in the dumpster.”
“It was removed from the Sodexo break room by a manager, Chris Carpenter,” Ortiz said.
At the next round of collective bargaining, Sodexo demanded that Renecker leave the room, claiming that he could not be a part of the negotiations, even though he was the president of the local.
“Sodexo didn’t ever want the union in there to start with,” Renecker said.
On March 3, 2011, 50 students, organized in part by then graduate student Andrew Bushaw, turned out to march through the Comstock Memorial Union and Kise Commons with Local 602 members, demanding that Sodexo speed up negotiations with the union. At the time, Sodexo representatives had only scheduled two days of talks with the union.
“Basically, they’re refusing to meet with us,” Renecker told the AFSCME newsletter at the time. “We told them we’d meet them whenever in February, March and April. They could only come up with two days.”
The next round of negotiations would begin on March 17, when dining services negotiators, including Ortiz, would meet with Sodexo’s negotiator, Harold Taegal. The negotiations were set to take place in the Comstock Memorial Union at 9 a.m., a time and place chosen by Sodexo. At the time of the meeting, union supporters had lined the hallway outside the bargaining room. By 9:15 however, Taegal had failed to show up.
According to union negotiators, Taegal was demanding that the negotiations be moved to North Dakota, and only agreed to attend the meeting at the CMU when union supporters were cleared. Once it began, the meeting was productive, resulting in more progress towards a contract than had been made since negotiations began.
However, as Bushaw, Renecker and Ortiz recalled, Sodexo began to post new job openings in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, looking for new dining services staff.
“They were trying to scare the employees,” Renecker said. “They wanted them to think that if they were to go on strike, they would be replaced.”
The union would negotiate a contract with Sodexo, but according to former employees and union representatives, Sodexo continued to attempt to drive the union out.
“They did everything they could to scare employees,” Renecker said. “Just stupid s—, that the union had to keep coming in and correcting.”
After the Contract
After the negotiations had ended with a contract between the union and Sodexo, former employees and union members recall Sodexo’s efforts to create a hostile environment for union employees.
Jill Ortiz recalled that pro-union employees faced discrimination and bullying from management.
“There was a lot of retaliation,” Ortiz explained. “One woman who had worked there (was) in her 60s and diabetic, and was told that she would not have to work later than 5 p.m. but almost immediately she was shifted to working until 8 or 9 p.m.”
Former Sodexo employee Sue Solem recalled a fellow co-worker, who she said was friendly with management, telling her she was bullied by management because she had associated with Ortiz.
“The employee who was working at the station next to me said, ‘You know the reason why they treat you so badly is because you talk to Jill?’ and I asked, ‘Why can’t I talk to her?’ and they said, ‘Well because of the union,’” Solem said.
According to Ortiz and Solem, managers at Sodexo began to enforce policies more strictly on the pro-union employees, including punishing employees for arriving late or missing work due to road closures for inclement weather.
“I had put my car in the ditch that day,” Ortiz explained. “But Elaine Volk (another Sodexo employee) was deathly afraid of losing this job, so she drove into town and when she got there Deb (Nordgaard) met her at the door and said, ‘Did you see Jill’s car in the ditch?’ and Elaine explained that she had, and because I was the steward they didn’t write me up.”
However, as Ortiz recalled Volk did recieve punishment for showing up late that day.
“They made her stay her full eight hours, which usually they never did, and they made her scrub and mop the floors after her initial shift,” Ortiz said.
Nordgaard said that she could not remember if that matched up with Sodexo policy, but said, “The employees would know what the policy is, because they were employed and had signed onto it.”
When asked if employees would be reprimanded for missing work due to road closures, Nordgaard said, “We would follow whatever the inclement weather policy was.”
Solem recalled a day in which she was forced to work the main station, one of the busiest stations in Kise, alone, despite the station usually having two or more workers.
“I was working at the main station, where all the hot dishes and stuff are, and I wasn’t allowed help,” Solem said.
Ortiz and Solem also recalled management discriminating against them in their requests for time off.
In Ortiz’s case, she claimed she had taken Thursday and Friday off to attend the Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minnesota. Ortiz said that Nordgaard had been the manager who had signed off on her request.
“The month before I was to have that Thursday and Friday off, she (Deb Nordgaard) asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” Ortiz said. “When I told her I was going to the Eelpout Festival, she said ‘Oh I’ve already been, you don’t need to be there until Saturday.’ I explained that I’d already had the time off approved. She asked who’d approved it, and I told her she had, and she said, ‘Well I don’t have the paperwork on it.’”
For Solem, she remembered taking time off to watch her son compete in the North Dakota State Wrestling Tournament. However, when the dates that she had taken off were approaching, she said that management told her that she needed to find someone to work for her.
“I had to ask the students, and the students were so nice to me, they asked around, and kept telling me, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t find anybody,’” Solem said. Solem added that it was only after she brought the matter to Ortiz, who was a union steward at the time, that she was granted the time off. “Jill (Ortiz) had to speak up of course, and then I finally got it off. That’s how cruel they were.”
Solem also recalled a time in which she was denied time off after her mother-in-law had passed away.
“They told me that I couldn’t have a day off,” Solem said. “I asked in text messages and then I called and they put me on speaker with the general manager, and I had to lowball, and say ‘So you’re telling me if my child dies I can’t have a day off?’ and the general manager said, ‘Oh fine, give it to her.’”
In 2012, Ortiz was diagnosed with breast cancer. After surviving her battle with breast cancer, Ortiz remembers Sodexo management, including Nordgaard, putting pressure on her to return to working full-time, despite her doctor’s recommendation.
“They belittled me,” Ortiz explained. “They did everything that they could possibly do to antagonize me. They put more work on me, knowing that I had restrictions and threatening my job because I had restrictions, continually bothering me, asking, ‘Why can’t you work full time?’ and I would explain, ‘My doctor says that I’m not ready.’ And Deb (Nordgaard) was the one that was actually continuing with that.”
Arbitration and Decertification
Ortiz had gotten up on the morning of Dec. 4, 2014 to go to work, when she realized that she did not have the correct color of shirt.
“The uniform for the kitchen staff was a black t-shirt,” Ortiz said. “I had worked there for 10 years, and in my 10 years I had worked both in the kitchen at Kise and in the retail outlet where we wore red shirts so I had shirts of both colors.”
Ortiz showed up to work in the kitchen in a red shirt.
“I was written up, and that was the final straw for termination,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz’s termination was taken into arbitration, where she was represented by AFSCME Council 5’s Ken Loeffler-Kemp. Over the next year, it would be found in arbitration that Ortiz was wrongfully terminated.
“We took her termination to an arbitration hearing, and the arbiter actually reinstated Ortiz,” Loeffler-Kemp said. “They found in the union’s favor.”
Ortiz had won the opportunity to be reinstated after her arbitration, which she declined.
Despite the win, however, Loeffler-Kemp believes that Ortiz’s firing had a negative impact on the workers at Sodexo.
“Ortiz had been very involved in the union,” Loeffler-Kemp said. “And when she was fired it had a real chilling effect on the workers.”
Within two years of Ortiz’s firing, the employees at Sodexo voted to decertify the union.
During the time leading up to the vote, Renecker alleges that Sodexo management made promises to the workers contingent on a successful decertification of the union.
“The boss kept saying, ‘you could all get a raise if you dropped the union,’” Renecker said.
Loeffler-Kemp echoed these sentiments, saying that while he didn’t know of any direct promises made to employees, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it had occurred.
“The sense I got was that it was clearly the employer leading or directing the campaign to decertify,” he added.
Nordgaard enies that Sodexo made any promises.
“We would never be able to promise anything like that,” she said.
Shortly after the vote, Solem recalled that most of the pro-union employees had left Sodexo.
“I mean, we’re all damaged from that place.” Solem said.
A History of Allegations
These are not the first allegations of anti-union activity at a Sodexo campus. In 2010, the Human Rights Watch filed a report detailing allegations that Sodexo had violated international labor rights standards, and in some cases, US labor law at its operation on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.
The allegations included advising managers “to tell employees that the company can hire permanent replacements and ‘would do what it had to do’ in the event of a strike.”
It was also alleged that Sodexo had fired employees for engaging in union activity at a commercial laundry facility in Phoenix, Arizona. According to the Human Rights Watch report, a “judge found that the firings had ‘pernicious’ effects on workers’ organizing rights.”
Sodexo’s Contract with MSUM
Sodexo has been providing dining services at MSUM for over 20 years, but their most recent contract with the school began on July 1, 2016.
Sodexo received the contract after being chosen from a pool of proposals the school received after a request for proposal, or RFP, process. The process involved collecting proposals from various dining services providers, and then selecting one of the proposals through a lengthy committee review process.
Layne Anderson, director of Student Union and Activities at MSUM, was on the committee that selected Sodexo’s proposal from a group of three proposals.
Anderson said that to his recollection, neither the 2010 Human Rights Watch report nor the allegations made by former Sodexo employees at MSUM were brought up during the committee process.
“I don’t recall that being discussed,” Anderson said.