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Thursday, December 30, 2010


The French transnational company Sodexo contracts with the University of Louisville to provide food and food services to students and others who dine in various campus facilities.

According to a troubling piece by David Moberg in The American Prospect, Sodexo's global reach is truly vast, as it "employs 380,000 workers in 80 countries." That global reach can make it difficult to keep an eye on the company's behavior around the world:
Sodexo, which says that it "has always recognized and respected trade union rights," is fighting [Marcia] Snell's attempt [at Ohio State University] to organize a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Human Rights Watch concluded that the company's U.S. operations had frequently violated the same international labor standards it observes in Europe...

French Sodexo union leaders Jean-Michel Dupire and Gerard Bodard say that after visiting Columbus [Ohio, home of Ohio State] last spring, they were shocked by differences between the lives of Americans like Snell and French Sodexo workers -- and the difference between Sodexo's self-image and reality. In France, anyone can easily join a union, and everyone in the food services is under union contracts. Most French Sodexo workers earn the minimum wage (about $12 an hour), but they have comprehensive public health insurance, a much more generous public pension, full work weeks, and six weeks paid vacation.
Moberg documents that Sodexo pays the Ohio State employee he profiles closer to $9 per hour. Moreover, she cannot afford the company's health care plan and did not receive any vacation days until this year -- after working 10 years with the company.

As a member of the University of Louisville's Sustainability Council, I've been involved in many meetings that discussed Sodexo's food purchasing decisions. Generally, the Council has encouraged "buy local" initiatives, supported a campus garden, promoted a Health Science Campus farmer's market, etc. Along those lines, Sodexo has been praised for partnering with another company to "bring on a line of natural and organic [food] products."

For obvious reasons, Sodexo's policies and practices pertinent to sustainability are primarily evaluated by the Operations Committee of the Council. However, it seems clear that the Administration, Finance & Outreach Committee should also monitor a company like Sodexo since the group "works to ensure that the University of Louisville... Compensates our employees fairly, provides for their basic needs, and treats them with dignity."

According to Moberg, the SEIU wants Sodexo to sign a concrete and global "compact that will guarantee unions' unimpeded right to organize Sodexo workers." Competing union UNITE HERE also favors a compact, but it wants to preserve the right of workers to organize under all unions equally -- so as not to privilege SEIU.

Could the Sustainability Council support these union efforts?

By law, Kentucky is a "union shop" state, but it is a target of "right to work" supporters who believe their arguments resonate among citizens of the Bluegrass. The AAUP does not have an especially strong presence on the U of L campus. The webpage still has a flashing "new" icon to promote a local conference that was held in April 2006. And, of course, Sodexo employees are not University employees.

In sum, I'm going to bring this up with some colleagues, but am not confident that it will go very far.

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