Student employees of Bon Appétit Management Company rallied outside Usdan University Center during the lunchtime rush to announce the formation of their union, Wesleyan Dining Workers United (WesDWU), on Tuesday, April 4. Then, on Wednesday, April 5, Red and Black Cafe (RBC) and WesWings (Swings) student workers held a second lunchtime rally to announce that they had also joined the union. On both days, the rallying workers were joined by students, staff, and members of the Middletown community in a show of solidarity.
The formation of WesDWU comes in response to low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of respect in the workplace, according to union members. Some of these students reported working four or five jobs in order to meet their student work-study contributions and expressed feeling generally unappreciated in their jobs. Bon Appétit student workers are paid $17 per hour, whereas the company’s unionized, full-time, non-student employees are paid at least $10 more per hour. Student workers at Swings and RBC are currently paid a starting wage of $14.10 per hour, with annual raises.
“We are seeking voluntary recognition, fair wages, better communication between workers and managers, adequate training, and respect in the workplace,” Lily Krug ’24 wrote in an email to The Argus.
Krug has been part of union efforts from the start, working with the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) and UNITE HERE Local 217, which represents the full-time unionized Bon Appétit workers. According to Krug, a group of Usdan student workers approached USLAC last year about the possibility of organizing. This year, Krug and Ari Randall ’25 have served as two of the leaders in the unionizing effort.
Randall, who works at Usdan, explained that from his first day on the job, it was clear that change was needed.
“I never received any real training, I was expected to learn as I go, or gather what I was supposed to be doing by asking full-time union workers,” Randall wrote in a message to The Argus. “I also didn’t get a uniform shirt in my actual size until having worked there over a year. A union is the way to address these problems, the understaffing, and the insufficient pay.”
Randall elaborated on the process of forming the union, which was partially influenced by the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE). WesUSE represents the Office of Residential Life’s student workers and has been formally recognized by the University since March 2022.
“Organizing started in spring 2022 as a result of some particularly bad treatment a few Usdan workers experienced, as well as being inspired by WesUSE’s success,” Randall wrote. “Since last fall, there’s been an ongoing effort with help from USLAC to unionize [Bon Appétit] student workers, and it was through USLAC that I first became involved, but we really started picking up steam in the spring…. Months ago, it was only 4 of us meeting and strategizing, and I’m inspired by how much this effort has grown, and by the solidarity and support of my fellow workers and students.”
Bon Appétit has agreed to a card check, meaning that if a majority of student Bon Appétit workers sign authorization cards and the union files them, then WesDWU will receive recognition as a union. WesDWU has been tabling outside of Usdan and Exley Science Center since their Tuesday rally so that dining workers interested in joining can sign cards signaling they would like to be represented by the union.
Resident District Manager of the Bon Appétit Dining Management Team Michael Strumpf could not be reached for comment.
At Tuesday’s rally, Danae Williams ’25, who works at Usdan, joined her fellow union members in sharing experiences as a student dining worker.
“I feel like some of the managers treat me in a very racist way…I feel like I’m being surveilled at work way, way more than my white counterparts,” Williams said at the rally. “And they watched me closely. Usually I’m the only black worker on my shift…. I do dread going to work and just end up feeling exhausted both emotionally and physically once the shift is over, which essentially makes me tired and unable to give my full energy to my academic work and extracurriculars and just being a person in general.”
Williams hopes a union will promote safer work environments for students and will reduce the mental and emotional stress caused by a poor work environment.
“Those three hours that I’m working at Usdan, I feel the most exhausted I’ve ever felt, the most strain I’ve ever felt, I feel the most depressed I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” Williams said at Tuesday’s rally. “And it takes away so much time in my day…. We deserve to be paid more if we’re going to be there for this large fucking period of time.”
Swings employee Adina Chasan-Taber ’23, who has been involved with the union organizing since January, explained that poor treatment of student workers has been a huge factor in the decision to unionize.
“I got used to being treated poorly in many ways, as have my coworkers,” Chasan-Taber wrote in an email to The Argus. “The hiring practices are unprofessional and disorganized, scheduling each semester comes down to favoritism, the cost of our uniforms is taken out of our paychecks, and we have to pay for our meals while on shift.”
Chasan-Taber hopes the union will achieve better pay, better hiring practices, better treatment of student workers while on shift, and official training practices. She also wants the union to include all Swings and RBC workers, both part-time and full-time employees.
“I want Wesleyan to support student workers in this movement,” Chasan-Taber wrote. “It has not been easy and it is just the beginning of our fight, but we see no reason why the university should not recognize us in the way that they recognized the [Bon Appétit full-time employee] union in 1982. We are asking that Wes Wings and Red and Black Cafe agree to voluntarily recognize our union. If we do not receive recognition by Monday, [April 10,] we are asking Wesleyan students to not cross a picket line, and refuse to patronize Wes Wings or Red and Black Cafe until they recognize the union.”
On Thursday, April 6, RBC and Swings workers gathered in front of Swings to picket during the dinner rush in a further push for their rights as workers.
Ed Thorndike ’89 and Karen Kaffen-Polascik, who own and operate Swings and RBC, wrote in an email to The Argus that they did not know of any student worker complaints prior to the rally on Wednesday.
“We cannot solve a problem when we don’t know one exists,” Thorndike and Kaffen-Polascik wrote. “Even at this moment, we have no idea what their motivating force is but we are happy to sit and discuss their concerns…. We are not anti-union; we want what is best for our employees and our company. We would like the opportunity to sit with our students and work together to solve their issues, like we have been doing since 1991.”
Swings and RBC workers receive a 50% discount on their meals during shifts and a 20% discount on their meals at either location while not on shift.
At the time of publication, Thorndike and Kaffen-Polascik have not formally recognized WesDWU.
Randall elaborated on the importance of the dining workers coming together to advocate for change.
“It is important that we organize in solidarity between already unionized [Bon Appétit] workers, student [Bon Appétit] workers, and workers at RBC and Swings, because together we are stronger,” Randall wrote. “Solidarity across all dining workers on this campus will allow us to better advocate for our needs than as totally separate groups.”
WesUSE Steward Ruby Clarke ’24 spoke at Tuesday’s rally about the necessity of standing up for workers’ rights, especially where a monopsony exists. Monopsony, in this context, signifies a situation where the labor market is populated with only one employer and those seeking work do not have variety or competition when searching for employment.
“We have to fight,” Clarke said. “We have to demand that they pay us a fair amount for our labor, because there’s nothing that they’re going to do to change that unless we sit down and we tell them that we’re worth more.”
In an interview with The Argus, Clarke elaborated on the positive impacts that unions can create within their communities and for their workers.
“You’re starting to create a culture and community of care and of solidarity, of respect and dignity, which is really important and is something that is gained, not lost,” Clarke said. “And student worker unions in general are really important, because…it helps to fight against the monopsony power that universities have over their student workers.”
Leonard Sanders, a full-time unionized Bon Appétit worker of 33 years, has made his support for WesDWU clear this week, even attending Thursday’s picket at Swings and missing work to be present at union events.
“I hope something positive comes out of the whole thing,” Sanders said. “Sometimes students get mismanaged in certain ways.…Regardless of going to school or not, they have rights like everybody else…. They should be paid fairly, they do a lot of hard work, and we depend on them. I think they should’ve had a union a long time ago.”
The members of WesDWU will continue tabling outside Usdan from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. from Friday, April 7 to Sunday, April 9. They will also have a table in Exley Science Center from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, April 7. Krug stated in a letter to the editor that any workers who wish to learn more about the union or sign cards and cannot make any of those times can reach out via email (email@example.com) or by phone (917-454-8978).
At Tuesday’s rally, Krug addressed the University directly and issued a call to action.
“Wesleyan, you have a very good labor history voluntarily recognizing WesUSE and with the unionized Bon App staff,” Krug said. “Support our rights to feel safe, respected and protected in our workplace and on this campus overall.”
This story is still developing. The Argus will provide additional coverage as more union action unfolds.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Swings and RBC student employees are paid the Connecticut minimum wage. However, they are paid a starting wage of $14.10/hr with annual raises. Additionally, Swings and RBC workers receive a 50% discount on their meals during shifts and a 20% discount on their meals at either location while not on shift.
Sida Chu, Sulan Bailey, and Tiah Shepherd contributed reporting.
Rachel Wachman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.