Staff for American University Kitchen have succeeded in negotiating a new contract with their employer, food service provider Compass Group, according to a press release from the UNITE HERE Local 23 union on June 27.
The new contract, which is now in effect, guarantees a $20 minimum wage for all employees under Compass, which are “bigger raises than they have received in the last 21 years combined.” An immediate $3 raise was given to meet the new minimum, with a gradual wage increase of more than $8 promised by 2027. Additionally, health care for individual workers will become free by 2026 and all workers will be eligible for four weeks of paid parental leave.
In April, The Eagle reported on Local 23’s fight for AU Kitchen staff to receive better wages and treatment, as well as for all nearly 1,100 employees under Compass in D.C., including at George Washington University, the Catholic University of America and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.
Multiple contract negotiation meetings took place at AU in April and May, but the parties did not reach an agreement. On April 12, hundreds of Compass employees picketed outside of the World Bank, where Compass employees work in the cafeteria.
“I’ve sat at the table at many negotiations since October 1976—that was the first time, when I was six months pregnant—and so much has changed,” said Willie Joyner, a Compass employee at Catholic University, in the press release. “This is the first time we’ve ever gotten dollars [raises]. To win this is amazing to me. It took perseverance and belief. I was very happy to be able to see this. In the past we got what we could—but this time we got what we needed. We had faith and belief, and we made it happen.”
Among the wage increase, eventual free healthcare and paid parental leave, UNITE HERE Local 23 also won guaranteed rights at work for transgender and nonbinary workers, new work accommodations for workers who are pregnant or have recently given birth and specific job protections for workers dealing with family or intimate partner violence. Additionally, Compass agreed to stop using the labor of non-union temporary workers in the District, giving workers under Local 23 more opportunities for extra work.
Toby Ruttenberg, the treasurer of AU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, spoke with The Eagle on the new contract and how students helped support the University’s dining staff.
According to Ruttenberg, YDSA has “always been committed to empowering workers in the community and on campus.”
The chapter co-hosted a union teach-in with Local 23 in March and held two protests in April, one inside Terrace Dining Room and one outside Mary Graydon Center. Ruttenberg said that members of YDSA, such as himself, have made “meaningful relationships with our Compass dining workers” throughout this process and will continue to support AU Kitchen staff going forward.
“The fight’s never over. It’s not like you sign the contract and then you’re all good,” Ruttenberg said. “The reality is whatever is on paper only means so much. It’s about how workers are continued to be treated in the workplace.”
In April, UNITE HERE released data in a press release which 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.
“I am so proud of Compass workers in this city. They have done two things: won life-changing raises, affordable healthcare, and so much more for their families, but also set the new standard for what a good hospitality job looks like in D.C.,” said UNITE HERE Local 23 President Marlene Patrick-Cooper in the press release. “We said workers who serve the elite shouldn’t be on the edge of poverty themselves, so we look forward to winning this new standard for all of our members.”
“I can promise the workers that YDSA will always be there to support … We’ll always mobilize students to be there for them,” Ruttenberg said.
According to Ruttenberg, without student support, “the fight would have definitely been longer and there would have been more and more hours spent on winning this contract. The overall solidarity on campus and in our community I think is what won this contract.”
This article was edited by Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis.