Whittier College housekeepers and their supporters picketed outside of the Campus Inn Monday afternoon in protest of their wages. The employees staged a 24 hour strike against Sodexo starting Sunday, Oct. 10 at 10:30 p.m. until Monday night. Sodexo is a French company that is contracted by Whittier College to provide cleaning and other services around campus.
“We’re told, `We would give you raises, but only without a union,”’ 60-year-old housekeeper Felicitas Puentes said. As a housekeeper at Whittier she has received a total of 23 cents an hour in raises during her five-year period of employment. Puentes is one of many employees who has complained about intimidation within the company.
Students passing through campus stopped to watch the scene unfold, as protestors chanted, “We want change, and we don’t mean pennies.” Signs such as “Clean up Sodexo” and “The fight for good jobs starts here” were help by picketers who marched in circles next to the Whittier College sign but the turnout was less than many of the picketers had hoped.
“I was disappointed to see small amount of students showed up,” senior Devika Ghai said. “I’d like to think there are more involved.”
The support from the students is a fundamental reason why the picket happened in the first place. Students on campus have met and collaborated with college housekeepers since last spring semester, acting as representatives to the workers and meeting with various Whittier College administrators.
“We encourage administration to take workers more seriously,” Ghai said. “The students have been representing the workers, and when someone says that the issue is not with Whittier College and is an issue between workers and the employers, students say that is not true because they work at our school. The students are reminding the school that they are involved and that they should take responsibility for it.”
“We often think that poverty is the result of not having a job, but most poor people work,” Sociology Professor sal johnston said. “Unions are focusing on service workers in order to try to force employers to provide livable wages, because many service workers are at the bottom of the scale.”
According to Sodexo employees in New Orleans, on average they make between $7.50 to $12 an hour, while the Economic Policy Institute lists the minimum wage of L.A. as $8 an hour, and $11.99 as the baseline for a livable wage.
The executive of the company makes around 296 times as much money as the average employee. The employees have been working year round to form a joint union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) amidst national layoffs and pay cuts. The SEIU is an independent union that has 2.2 million members worldwide and is the largest property services union in the U.S.
“We’re fighting for better treatment,” Puentes said, who cleans the science center. “They earn over a billion dollars while we, their workers, struggle just to pay our rent and feed our families. We are here to send a message to Sodexo.”
According to Whittier College spokeswoman Ana Lilia Barraza. The strike is a dispute between Sodexo management and employees and is not directed at the college.
Sodexo employees are expressing their grievances not only regarding their pay, but toward services that Sodexo provides them as well.
Employees said that they could not afford the health care Sodexo provided, which takes $66 from every paycheck, yet fails to cover medication and co-pay.
“I just want to be able to get medical insurance for my family,” 60-year-old Graciela Barrera said, who has worked at Whittier through Sodexo for 11 years.
Whittier College is not the only school to have its employees stand up against Sodexo. Last week, cafeteria workers at Lehigh Valley hospitals in New Orleans held a similar picket against what workers claim are “poverty level wages.” Sodexo has taken a firm stance against protesters, saying that they are free to join a union if they wish.
“Today’s activity is part of an ongoing campaign by the Service Employees International Union to smear Sodexo and force it to give away its employees rights to vote for or against this union in secret ballot elections,” Sodexo Director of Public Relations Alfred King said. “Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to join a union or not, as they choose.”
Sodexo is one of the world’s largest employers, with around 380,000 employees as of their 2009 annual report.
The company is present in over 80 countries around the world and has approximately 30,000 business locations. In 2009, the company turned a profit of almost €393 million ($543 million).
“Sodexo should stop humiliating and stepping over people, housekeeper Maria del Socorro Galindo said. “(We) need to be treated with respect. I want to make wages to my children can get a good education.”
According to students, the housekeepers have not officially met with administrators.
Students involved with the workers have organized an open forum for Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Villalobos hall.
These students do not make up an official group on campus, but hope to become an official club this semester known as Students for Social Justice.