Northeastern Disorientation

Dining Hall Workers’ Decade-Long Fight for Dignity on the Job

 · 4 mins read

Northeastern has a history of exploiting its dining hall workers through hired subcontractors. From underpaying workers to failing to fill staff positions to enabling abusive managers, Northeastern’s dining hall subcontractor treats some of its most essential workers as if they are completely replaceable and small. In 2012, after enduring years of mistreatment, the workers had enough and decided to form a union with UNITE HERE Local 26 to achieve their goals of dignity on the job and fair wages.

In solidarity with the dining workers, students from 45 student groups formed the first Huskies Organizing With Labor (HOWL) coalition. Organizing with each other and the workers, HOWL raised the alarm about the conditions workers were under in our dining halls and the need for a union. Due to their great organizing effort, a majority of Northeastern dining workers voted to form a union and won their first union contract, a huge win in the face of a hostile administration. Then, five years later in 2017, as their first union contract was about to expire, dining workers started fighting again for a stronger second union contract. In response, over 50 student groups formed the second HOWL coalition and together, the dining workers and students organized another amazing campaign, winning a union contract with higher hourly wages, more affordable healthcare, and a pension plan.

However, five more years later, Northeastern’s subcontractor continues to exploit the dining workers: Northeastern dining workers are paid $5-6/hour less than those at MIT and Harvard, and workers’ current contract caps the full time workweek at 37.5 hours, denying workers a livable wage. The pandemic exacerbated this exploitation: In March 2020, when campus shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, dining hall workers were sent home for months without compensation. Even when campus and the dining halls opened back up, short staffing meant that each worker had to work at a breakneck pace in order to serve 55-70 students per shift, essentially making one worker do the job of two or three workers at once.

Therefore, in 2022, students came together to form the third iteration of HOWL. We have been fighting with the dining workers since January for a better contract that includes:

  • a liveable wage matching that of Harvard and MIT dining workers,
  • a 40-hour workweek,
  • a guarantee that requires workers who call out to be replaced,
  • reduced cost of health insurance, and
  • a better pension plan that allows workers to save for retirement.

This time, we recruited 68 of Northeastern’s clubs and organizations to bring awareness to the fight and capture the attention of Northeastern administration. We had several marches and rallies throughout the spring and delivered a letter to Aoun himself, gaining widespread media attention. In addition, we kept our momentum from the spring semester going into the summer by strengthening our connections with the liaisons of our member orgs, upping our social media game, and even holding another rally at the end of June to demonstrate continued student-worker solidarity throughout the summer.

The current union contract was originally set to expire on August 31. However, due to our sustained pressure, Chartwells (the subcontractor Northeastern hired to staff the dining halls) agreed to the demand of replacing call-outs one week before the contract was set to expire. The COVID-19 pandemic made this demand even more crucial, as more people calling out sick during the pandemic forced workers to perform the jobs of multiple people when replacements were not called in, so the fact that Chartwells agreed to this demand is a significant win! Moreover, workers and Chartwells also agreed to continue negotiations and extend the union contract expiration date by 2 weeks, to September 14.

The fact that Chartwells has already agreed to one of the workers’ core demands is a testament to HOWL’s sustained pressure and organizing effort throughout the spring and fall. However, there are still four more demands left to be won, so HOWL is continuing to organize and fight harder than ever to put more pressure on Northeastern administration and Chartwells.

Student support at this moment is critical, so now is a great time to jump into HOWL! To get involved, you can fill out the join form here and we’ll reach out to you. If you’d like to keep up with HOWL on social media, you can follow us on Instagram (@howlneu) or on Twitter (@HOWLatNEU).

Together, through student-worker solidarity, we can organize with both students and dining workers to win the workers’ demands for a better workplace. Because when we fight, we win!