“At Northeastern, Herma Parham, 57, said dining service employees came to work one day last week and were told they were being laid off. They were given a gift bag with bread, potatoes, and onions, along with instructions on how to apply for unemployment, she said.” —The Boston Globe, March 25, 2020.
On March 17, 2020, after Northeastern University announced the closure of campus and forced all on-campus students to move out, they also furloughed most of their dining workers without pay or healthcare in the midst of a pandemic. Furloughed workers were given only one day’s notice and did not receive pay past March 19th. The few workers who remained on campus to operate International Village were not provided hazard pay nor were they equipped with sufficient PPE.
The official stance of the University was that it was the responsibility of the contractor Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group USA, which employs Northeastern Dining Hall Workers, to reach an agreement on payment and working conditions for the remainder of the Spring semester. However, other universities in the area, including Harvard, MIT, and Tufts, agreed to provide pay and benefits to dining workers through May, due to pressure from student activists and UNITE HERE Local 26, the union representing dining workers at several Boston-area universities. Ultimately, the University ought to have ensured the economic wellbeing of the people who help the University function - and clearly had the power to do so. Northeastern hires Chartwells to run their campus dining services, and decides how much the employees get paid. They could have either demanded that Chartwells paid them what they had previously agreed to, or paid the workers themselves, as MIT did.
This refusal to take responsibility for dining workers came after several Progressive Student Alliance petitions, tweet-ins, and a nationally orchestrated United Students Against Sweatshops call-in. These actions went certainly heard, but ignored, by Northeastern administrators, as was made clear by Northeastern’s meager response of having Progressive Student Alliance meet with Bob Jose, then–Dean of Student Affairs, who did not have the authority or power to meet any of the demands put forth by the University’s abused workers. Neither the needs of its workers nor pressure from its student body were enough to convince Northeastern to take responsibility for those from whom it asks so much.
The only public response Northeastern gave to the layoff of dining workers was on April 5, 2020, when News at Northeastern released an article claiming that Northeastern was providing educational and career assistance programs for laid off workers. However, according to dining workers, they were merely sent a flyer informing them of other jobs and/or programs they could apply for. Furthermore, many of the jobs they suggested workers apply for involved putting themselves at risk for exposure to COVID-19. Northeastern failed to provide any assistance to workers who were unable to apply for unemployment due to immigration status.
For those interested in organizing around dining workers’ rights, consider joining Northeastern’s Progressive Student Alliance! They are a local affiliate of a national organization called United Students Against Sweatshops. They organize around student and worker power on and around campus and have worked closely with dining workers, RAs, janitors, and non-tenure track full time faculty. If you'd like to join PSA, you can reach out to us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.