c/o Soren Stokes

c/o Soren Stokes

If you have been on campus at any point in the last six months, chances are you encountered something related to the unionization of student dining workers. Union negotiations involving student workers for Bon Appétit (BonApp), WesWings, and Red & Black Cafe have consumed the minds of many in the campus community this year. However, this is not the first time organized labor has made a splash. This week, we looked back at The Argus archives to examine the history of dining-related union negotiations on campus in recent decades.

2007: Bon Appétit ou Bon Voyage?

Bon Appétit became the University’s primary food service provider in 2007, marking the beginning of relations between on-campus unions and Bon Appétit.

In an article from May of that year titled “Union steward blasts Bon Appétit conduct,” then-Assistant News Editor Ezra Silk ’10 detailed the collective fear present among unionized dining workers as a change of employer loomed. Many believed their jobs were in jeopardy, their health insurance was in danger of being altered, and their work locations on campus would be changed without their knowledge. While negotiations between Bon Appétit and union leaders did happen, many felt that transparency was lacking.

“We’re in the dark about a lot of things,” Jeffrey Hill, a union steward who had worked as a chef for the past 27 years at McConaughey Hall, one of the University’s former dining halls, said in Silk’s article. “Bon Appétit’s pissed off their workers before they’ve even arrived. There’s a lot of grumbling about what’s going on here.”

Beyond the lack of transparency, health insurance quickly became a point of contention. While the union and Bon Appétit eventually reached an agreement in which Bon Appétit workers could keep their prior health insurance with Blue Cross, there was a twist: Bon Appétit offered any workers who were willing to switch to their insurance provider a $1,000 bonus.

“They’re saying that if you decide to take our insurance we will give you a thousand dollars,” Hill said in the 2007 article. “That is a complete and total bribe that what they’re doing is trying to dangle a carrot in front of our faces and see who’s going to go for it. They want us to start fighting with each other. They’re trying to manipulate people before they walk in the door.”

Tensions remained high as Bon Appétit assumed its role in the fall. In an article titled “Workers unite: Union butts heads with Bon Appétit” from September of the same year, Silk detailed how workers felt that Bon Appétit had violated their contracts. This led the union to march to Bon Appétit’s temporary headquarters to confront Bon Appétit’s then-Resident District Manager Delmar Crim.

A majority of the violations cited were the cutting of hours and the reduction of employees’ monthly pay by over a thousand dollars in some cases. Additionally, when employees’ hours dipped below 20 hours per week, many lost insurance benefits that they relied on.

“It’s all about money,” Weshop cashier Sandy Baik said in the article. “They’re not the ones losing their insurance. You really don’t know how it feels until it happens to you.”

2010: Tense times

Tensions between unions and University contractors heightened once again in 2010, particularly for Physical Plant and Bon Appétit workers.

A 2010 article by then-Assistant News Editor Erin Newport ’13 highlighted the union negotiations between Physical Plant workers and the University in 2010. According to Newport, the three main concerns of the union were increases in wages, tuition benefits for employee dependents, and installation of GPS tracking devices in walkie-talkies and vehicles. 

In the wake of the increased health insurance premiums that workers had to pay since the previous contract was decided in 2007, employees demanded increases in pay, opposing the 0% wage increase the University was reported to give in 2010. At the same time, the workers felt that their decreased earnings stemmed from more work being outsourced to other contractors.

Wesleyan’s tuition benefit for employees was another concern, with the administration proposing to cap it at $20,907 despite the simultaneous rising cost of tuition. This sentiment was shared by McGurgan.

“Wesleyan says they’re need-blind for students applying to Wesleyan, but they’re not need-blind for the families that work here,” McGurgan said.

In October of the same year, Bon Appétit faced issues with union negotiations of its own. Newport reported workers wearing “Local 217-UNITE HERE” pins, representing the local chapter of the national UNITE HERE union

Local 217 Vice-President Sue Silvestro pinpointed job security, health insurance, and wages—the staple issue of any union negotiation–as the main concerns. This round of negotiations was the second between the University’s dining workers and Bon Appétit, with many workers hopeful for a smoother negotiation process this go-around.

“We felt that there were a lot of glitches last time in our negotiations,” Silvestro said. “We’ve been talking about [the upcoming negotiations] for a while and we’re hoping that there isn’t going to be a fight of any kind, but if there is, we’re prepared for it.”

2016: Contract chaos

The tradition of food workers rallying to organize around upcoming contract negotiations with Bon Appétit continued in 2016, as detailed in an article titled “Bon Appétit Food Workers Begin to Organize Around Upcoming Contract Negotiations” by then-Features Editor Jake Lahut ’17. 

Upcoming contract negotiations were a source of tension for many, with primary points of contention being health insurance and sixth- and seventh-day overtime pay. Although overtime pay was included in the full benefits of the package afforded to Bon Appétit’s workers, it was reported to be cut at the time. 

Union Steward Ted Briggs was one worker faced with harrowing financial prospects with the sixth- and seventh-day overtime pay being cut.

“I would lose around half of my annual income,” Briggs said in the article. “In turn, I would probably lose my house that I just bought.”

Lahut noted how food service unions’ protests and negotiations at schools across the country influenced the atmosphere at the University, with campus staff highlighting how a Harvard University food service group was promised wages of at least $35,000 per year after a lengthy battle.

Workers also noted that reduced hours could affect their access to healthcare, leaving them uninsured. Many cited the recent introduction of the Affordable Care Act as a cause for this; employers who did not want to give their workers full-time benefits required by the act would cut employee hours to fall below the threshold of full-time employment, saving the employers money.

“Right now I’m working 19 hours a week, and I need 20 to get healthcare,” late-night dining worker Charleine Dechaine said in the article.

With their daily lives dependent on these benefits, the workers felt especially invested in these negotiations. 

“I have three kids and a wife, and two of my kids are under three years old, so my wife stays at home with them, so I’m the sole income for my house,” Briggs said in the article. “One of my kids has health problems, and their baby formula is $1,000 a month. I wouldn’t be able to afford a mortgage on my house, much less food and clothing if I didn’t have health insurance from my full-time benefits.”

2023: Student struggles

Earlier this year, tensions regarding unionization peaked once again as student dining workers at Bon Appétit, WesWings, and Red & Black Cafe pursued unionization, uniting in solidarity under the group Wesleyan Dining Workers United (WesDWU), detailed in an article by then-Managing Editor Tiah Shepherd ’23 and then-Staff Writer Leo Bader ’26. These efforts to unionize were motivated by the necessity for greater pay, a need for better working conditions, and breaches of contractual duties by employers.

While student Bon Appétit workers were quickly recognized as members of the union, workers at WesWings and Red & Black Cafe expressed greater adversity. Full-time staff members claimed that they thought they would be included in the unionization efforts, and were hurt that the union appeared to be solely led by students. Edward Thorndike ’89 and Karen Polascik, who together own both establishments, were given until Monday, April 10, of the same year to voluntarily recognize the union. Students began protesting WesWings and Red & Black Cafe almost immediately.

After this initial chaos, regular union meetings followed, helping many student workers better understand union negotiations and proceedings.

“I initially took a step back from the union, but then I had no information about what was going on,” WesWings worker Eva Weintraub ’24 said in Shepherd and Bader’s article. “Getting the support from the full-time BonApp workers was super important and I wouldn’t have had that if I didn’t go to the meetings.”

As tensions remained high, preparations for a union election further angered student workers. According to the article, representatives from UNITE HERE Local 217 reported that WesWings and Red & Black employers Thorndike and Polascik suggested excluding student workers from the election, despite many of them being legally allowed to participate in the election.

“She [my coworker] just asked [Polascik], ‘We were wondering why you think that students shouldn’t be able to vote in this election?’” Weintraub said. “She pretty much just threw a lot of lies at us about eligibility requirements when we knew the requirements.”

Many student workers were irate at what appeared to be union-busting activity by WesWings and Red & Black Cafe management, and tensions remained high well into the summer. However, many members of the campus community were met with a pleasant surprise when the DWU announced that workers at WesWings and Red & Black Cafe had won their union in an Instagram post last week.

“This victory represents a massive step towards 100% union food service on our campus, giving more workers the bargaining power to ensure that we are treated with respect and that more families in Middletown have good jobs that allow them to live with dignity,” the post read.

Though unionization struggles continue to consume the minds of many, it appears as though we can see the light at the end of this tunnel. And while the history of union negotiations at the University reminds us that any peace is probably temporary, it can also show us how far the University’s organized labor has come in the last couple decades, and how organization, protest, and persistence can bring benefits to many workers on campus.


Akhil Joondeph can be reached at ajoondeph@wesleyan.edu.

Janhavi Munde can be reached at jmunde@wesleyan.edu

“From the Argives” is a column that explores The Argus’ archives (Argives) and any interesting, topical, poignant, or comical stories that have been published in the past. Given The Argus’ long history on campus and the ever-shifting viewpoints of its student body, the material, subject matter, and perspectives expressed in the archived article may be insensitive or outdated, and do not reflect the views of any current member of The Argus. If you have any questions about the original article or its publication, please contact Head Archivist Sam Hilton at shilton@wesleyan.edu.