AU Kitchen workers demand higher wages with UNITE HERE local union
Compass workers across DC are organizing to negotiate new contracts with higher wages
American University Kitchen staff are currently demanding higher wages and better treatment in negotiations with their employer, The Compass Group, through the UNITE HERE Local 23 Union.
At AU, contract negotiation meetings took place on April 5 and 6, but a deal was not reached. The next meetings are scheduled for May 15‐18, according to a UNITE HERE spokesperson.
Action steps from the union
Compass’ subcontracts with various institutions across D.C., such as AU, The Catholic University of America and the Smithsonian Institution, all expired in 2022. There are now over 1,000 Compass workers across the D.C. area fighting for a new contract with higher pay.
On April 12, Compass workers rallied outside the World Bank. Hundreds of employees, union organizers and supporters picketed in front of the financial institution where Compass workers are employed in the cafeteria. The union is demanding a $20 minimum wage for all employees.
The demonstrators chanted: “Compass made a dollar. We made a dime. That’s why we’re on the picket line,” “Eradicate poverty. Start right here” and “No contract? No peace.”
AU Kitchen employees did not speak to The Eagle on the record for fear they would be reprimanded or fired by Compass or management.
In 2018, former AU food provider Aramark released employee Anthony Randolph due to four overdue parking tickets and accusations that he fled from a parking enforcement officer, which he denied. Randolph and UNITE HERE claimed that he was fired from his position without just cause.
Another Aramark employee, Ana Ebanks, was terminated in 2016 for allegedly missing 40 minutes of work to attend a class at the Washington College of Law. Both of these events caused student outrage and protests.
Randolph now serves as the president of the Local 23 D.C. chapter. Josh Armstead, the vice president, spoke with The Eagle about union organizing at AU and beyond.
“We want to make sure that people work and that they work with dignity,” Armstead said. “People have the right to dignity on the job [and] a job that pays a fair wage.”
Armstead was a dining worker at Georgetown University for 10 years and now organizes and helps union members. His union slogan is “One job should be enough.”
“It’s the benefits of the union that allows me to actually live a decent life,” he said. “Instead of … the one that I grew up with in D.C. which was one of poverty.”
A brief history of AU Kitchen subcontractors
AU subcontracts outside food service providers to feed its community. In the past, it was under the Marriott corporation from 1981 to 2001 and Bon Appetit until 2013. Up until 2019, AU was subcontracted by Aramark, when the provider switched to Chartwells, a subsidiary of The Compass Group.
UNITE HERE is a labor union that represents over 300,000 workers across North America. Members work in various fields such as food service, transportation, hotels and airports as part of over 100 local unions. UNITE HERE Local 23 has represented AU Kitchen workers since its formation in 2009 after the previous AU union Local 25 redefined its oversight. In the 1980s under Marriott, workers were represented by Local 32.
Data from a press release by UNITE HERE found that 70 percent of Compass cafeteria workers surveyed at the World Bank reported lacking money to cover their rent, mortgage or other housing costs in the past year, while 50 percent reported lacking money to pay for food for themselves or their households.
“Compass cafeteria workers feed some of the most prestigious and influential institutions in our nation’s Capital – yet they’re struggling to pay their bills,” said UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor in the press release. “Compass is the largest food service contractor in the US. Food service workers have been really whacked by inflation, but workers are in a position of power right now to advocate for change. We plan to fight hard to turn these jobs, and all hospitality jobs, into jobs you can live on in DC.”
An investigation by The Eagle in 2015 found that contracting complications under Aramark forced AU Kitchen employees to continue working instead of retiring. The article found at least six longtime subcontracted employees who couldn’t afford to live off social security benefits and did not have large enough pension funds to stop working.
According to the investigation, concern over workers’ benefits exploded on campus in 2015 following the arrest in Terrace Dining Room of former professor Jim McCabe on Oct. 14. Images of police escorting McCabe out of TDR, where he was handing out fliers advocating for dining workers, spread on social media and were briefly taped across campus walls. McCabe’s arrest drew attention to the issue from leaders around campus and from student advocacy groups.
Students Supporting AU Dining Workers
AU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter has been working closely with Local 23 and dining workers as the contract negotiations continue.
On March 28, the two groups hosted a teach-in for students and community members to learn more about the union and where AU Kitchen workers expressed grievances about Compass.
Matt Romano, a sophomore in the School of Communication and the vice president of YDSA, said, “As students, we value the services that [AU Kitchen workers] provide, and … we really appreciate the commitment that a lot of these people put in, and we wish that the University respected them to the level that we do.”
John Paul Mejia, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke at the teach-in about how he was let down by AU’s commitment of fostering a community of care and has found home in other places, such as dining workers.
“When I talk to folks in line at TDR, when I’m able to actually communicate with the people who run this campus, that’s when I feel at home,” he said. “To feel that … there’s a power structure here … slaps us in the face as students who often pay enormous sums of money or are drowning in debt merely to be in here. Not only do we feel that spit on our face, but when they talk to people who resemble our parents, who resemble people who look like us, that’s the ultimate fucking slap in the face and we’re not going to take it.”
Additionally, the Student Government Undergraduate Senate passed Resolution 18-017 on April 2 to “show solidarity with our Local 23 Union members, and all those who work under Chartwells and in our dining services.”
Resolutions can only express the Senate’s “official sentiment or statement,” according to the SG bylaws, and cannot amend University policies — they can only “implore” administrators to implement a resolution as official policy.
On April 20, dozens of students protested inside TDR. The action was led by the Young Democratic Socialists of AU, including Toby Ruttenberg, the treasurer of YDSA and sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and Rohin Ghosh, a sophomore in CAS and ANC Commissioner for AU’s 3E08 district.
“The students of American University demand that Compass dining workers, our fellow community members who feed us every day, are given fair wages — fair wages and fair treatment,” said Ruttenberg at the event. “We will not be silent unless our dining workers are treated with respect.”
Students chanted “The students and workers are in it together,” and “Sí se puede,” a common union chant that translates to “Yes, it can be done.”
“Our dining workers are here taking care of students day in and day out. They keep us fed, they keep us cared for,” Ghosh said. “The least we can do is make sure we show up from them in this time of need for them.”
At the protest, the organizers announced a larger upcoming action on April 26: a rally with Local 23 outside the Mary Graydon Center in support of Compass workers from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.
“During these negotiations with UNITE HERE Local 23, we continue to bargain in good faith and are eager to reach a new agreement that is fair to all,” a Chartwells Higher Education spokesperson wrote in an email to The Eagle. “Here and across the country, we have a long history of listening to our associates and working productively with unions to do what’s best for our employees and clients. We’re eager to provide increases to our employees and give them clarity as soon as possible. Unfortunately, while we thought we would continue discussions next week, the Union postponed the next meeting for another month.”
A UNITE HERE spokesperson said that this statement was not accurate and the next bargaining date is May 15‐18.
“If we achieve a deal with Compass group, honor the agreement and treat your workers fairly,” Armstead said. “Treat them as if they are human beings as part of the AU community. Just as important as a student, just as important as your dean, just as important as any visitor… They are a part of AU.”
Penelope Jennings contributed reporting to this article.
This article was edited by Mackenzie Konjoyan, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Leta Lattin and Stella Guzik.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the next bargaining dates are May 15 and 16. The correct dates are May 15‐18. The story has been updated with the correct dates.