After 45 food service workers at The New School received a notice that they were going to be laid off, hundreds of students took over the university cafeteria.
Four days later, they are still there.
Members of the Unite Here! Local 100 union asked students to rally for them in a meeting on April 27, after an announcement made by The New School administration to replace cafeteria workers with non-union employees sparked anger within the school community.
The New School students took over the university cafeteria after its workers’ jobs were put in jeopardy, now having occupied the space for four days.
The New School had decided to end its contract with Chartwells, a multinational food-service company that employed the workers. In a letter obtained by amNewYork, the university said it had decided to self-operate its food services, a move Local 100 secretary-treasurer Jose Maldonado said was “extremely rare.”
“As The New School does not expect a majority of the workforce in the newly-configured dining services department to be staffed by former Local 100 employees, The New School will be under no obligation to bargain with Local 100,” reads the letter, signed by the school’s associate general counsel and vice president of labor relations Keila Tennent-DeCoteau.
The university would be willing to give the workers a chance to re-apply for their jobs on “competitive terms,” the letter adds.
After a petition circulated by Local 100 contesting the decision did not receive a response from the university, the students decided to take matters into their own hands. The school’s Communist Student Group took up residence in a cafeteria located at 63 Fifth Ave. and demanded that every cafeteria worker’s job be saved. The group also asked for higher wages for the workers and better or equal benefits than what they were receiving under Chartwells’ contract.
On Tuesday, International Workers’ Day, students flooded the cafeteria at 11:30 a.m. At least 50 of them slept there overnight throughout the week, according to third-year student and CSG member Victoria Capraro.
“We, the students, we see [the cafeteria workers] every single day. A lot of them consider themselves mothers to us,” she said. “It’s the cafeteria workers who are asking me if I’m going to class; cafeteria workers are asking me how my day is going.”
Soon after the occupation began, workers were instructed to lock the pantry. For several days, the students pooled their money together and made a “self-sufficient” cafeteria, Capraro said. Approaching finals, several professors have come into the occupied space and taught classes, she added.
The New School students set up beds, tarps and couches for a cafeteria occupation in the University Center at 63 Fifth Ave.
The cafeteria looked like a Soviet-style campaign office on Thursday, with signs reading “Socialism is the future” and “Protest Organize Occupy Walk Out Resist Strike Shut it Down” crowding the walls and blocking school surveillance cameras. Students nested with tarps, sleeping bags and couches dragged in from the faculty rooms. A water station read, “The revolution will not be providing sparkling water. Thank you for understanding.”
About a day and a half into the sit-in, The New School president David Van Zandt went into the occupied space and verbally promised to rehire all of the workers, according to Capraro. In an email sent shortly after, the administration vowed to offer employment to all of the workers, with “benefits equal to or better” than what they were currently receiving.
Not everyone, however, bought it.
“We want it in writing. You say you hire all the workers back? I want it in writing,” cafeteria worker Janice Townsend said. “You are playing with our lives right now. We are not backing down until that contract is mine. I am not going anywhere.”
In an emailed statement Friday, The New School spokeswoman Amy Maslin confirmed that the university will hire all of its employees back and provide equal or better benefits. School officials are working on reaching a “collective bargaining agreement” with the union, she said. Further details of the negotiations were not offered by The New School.
According to Local 100’s Maldonado, The New School officials met with union representatives and cafeteria workers on Thursday and said that while every employee would be hired back, not all of them would work in food service. They said they wouldn’t be able to offer up a contract before August, which would mean that workers would have no health insurance in the summer months, Maldonado said.
“They said they will recognize the union but they want to dictate terms of the hiring. They don’t want to negotiate,” he said, adding that “it’s pretty clear” the university is trying to bust the union. “It’s heartbreaking. If we don’t have a contract, all the workers can be fired, cause or no cause.”
Abad DeGraffe, who has worked at the cafeteria for almost two years, said that the administration’s efforts to bully him have left him feeling scared and unappreciated.
“This was supposed to be the last chapter of my life,” DeGraffe said. “I came here to retire. Not to hope that one day I’m going to get fired or laid off.”
While Maldonado hopes that the university will be open to negotiations, The New School students have no intention of leaving the cafeteria.
“We are not restricted by any regulations,” occupation organizer and one of CSG’s founding members, Robert Griswold, said. “We are communists and we rely on our own forces and build revolutionary worker power.”
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