Concession workers protest unfair labor practices during game
Published: Saturday, October 9, 2010
Updated: Saturday, June 16, 2012 00:06
People traveled from as far as Cleveland and Indianapolis to join concession-stand workers in a protest against what they say are unfair labor practices of Sodexo Inc. during today's football game between Ohio State and Indiana.
The protesters, who began gathering as early as 3:30 a.m. at their "base camp" in the parking lot by the intersection of John H. Herrick Drive and Olentangy River Road, grew to a group of 22 employees, accompanied by Service Employees International Union members outside the stadium.
The protesters descended on Ohio Stadium at 10:20 a.m., chanting, "O-H-I-O, clean up Sodexo," while shaking rattles made of empty plastic bottles and rocks, and banging bass drums. Many donned purple labor-union attire and hoisted signs including, "We Sell Millions But Make Pennies." Other signs accused Sodexo of unfair labor practices.
The group circled the stadium several times before returning to their camp to tailgate.
Ongoing disputes between Sodexo and its employees, who provide food and cleaning services to universities, hospitals and athletic facilities, culminated in the recent employee-approved authorization of strikes at several locations, including OSU.
Reactions among football fans who passed the protesters have ranged from confusion to anger.
Christine Gillespie, second-year in finance, watched the picketers march past Morrill Tower and said she recognized the union but didn't know why they were protesting.
"I've seen them around before," she said. "They were really aggressive and pushed stuff at you."
Other OSU fans flipped off the protesters and shouted expletives at them.
Sriraman Ramanujam, 46, an OSU fan, said he thought the protest would be effective.
"This is the right time and place to do this," he said. "There are a lot of people together here, so it could make an impact."
Others were concerned about the potential financial implications of increasing the workers' pay, saying they were worried the price of stadium food would grow.
Norma Martina, OSU alumna, said she was unaware that people working on OSU's campus were not unionized.
"I thought the workers were all unionized on campus," she said.
Martina said she thought a strike was not the right way to communicate their message.
"The strike left a lot of people in the dark about their message," she said. "I think you need an open dialogue."
Sodexo employees say the France-based company treats them unfairly.
"I cry sometimes to think about the time I spend away from my family, knowing I still don't make enough to support them," said Amy Lawhead, 34, a stand supervisor who has worked for Sodexo on-and-off since 2002. "I don't feel like I should work this hard just to be disrespected and overlooked."
Tom Suber, 63, stocks concession stands at the Schottenstein Center and has worked for Sodexo for 10 years. He said Sodexo employees are grossly underpaid.
"You go home exhausted at the end of the day and yet have to apply for welfare," he said. "Nobody should be working full time and have to be on welfare — that's obscene."
Alfred King, spokesman for Sodexo USA, said the company does not employ full-time workers. But in an e-mail sent previously, he said, "Sodexo has about 100 employees at the stadium; 24 are full-time."
Suber said striking is the employees' best opportunity to improve Sodexo's labor practices.
"We have a chance to change things," he said, "not only for ourselves, but for other people in the food service industry and all over the country."
Sodexo employees at the Columbus Crew Stadium organized a walkout Saturday, Oct. 2, a week before the Ohio Stadium strike.
Joe Musick, 20, a stand supervisor at Crew Stadium, said earlier in the week that he and his co-workers walked off-site "in response to the unfair labor practices, the treatment of (his) fellow co-workers and everything that has happened."
Laurie Couch, spokeswoman for the labor union, said Sodexo is mistreating its employees.
"Workers are on strike because they have been illegally threatened and retaliated against for trying to form a union," she said.
King said such claims are unfounded.
"Allegations that Sodexo interferes with employees attempting to unionize are false," he said in an e-mail.
Couch said the wages Sodexo pays its employees aren't enough.
"They make as little as $7.50 an hour," she said. "Most of them have no access to health care, and many of them qualify for food stamps and welfare even though many of them work as many as 60 to 70 hours per week."
King said the wages and benefits Sodexo offers are more than adequate.
"Sodexo provides competitive wages, and our benefits eligibility for front line employees is the most liberal in our industry," he said in an e-mail.
Operations were reportedly unaffected by today's strike.
"We were able to continue our operations as normal," King said.
Managers declined to comment, though one admitted he did not know what was going on. Operations did not appear to be delayed.
Police and Ohio Stadium employees declined to comment.
Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee said the conflict does not involve the university.
"This is not our fight," Gee said during a meeting with The Lantern editorial board Wednesday. "This is between Sodexo and the Union."
But Gee added that allowing the Sodexo employees to unionize would squeeze out the volunteer philanthropic groups who work at the stadium, and he would not allow that to happen.
No Sodexo employees were fired from Crew Stadium in response to the strike. One was written up for an unexcused absence from work, for which Couch said the union will file a complaint against Sodexo.
Justin Conley and Lauren Hallow contributed reporting to this story.