Student-worker coalition scores victory at Stanford

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Victory! After a three-night sleep-out in front of the Stanford University president’s office, over 100 students joined campus workers at midnight May 31 to celebrate huge gains won by employees of Bon Appetit, an outside company that owns restaurants in the campus student union.

More than 60 Stanford students had camped out each night, calling on the university’s administration to “wake up” to the reality that workers can’t survive in Silicon Valley on $8.50 an hour. With the slogan “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” students supported the workers’ demand for parity in wages and benefits with dining hall workers directly hired by Stanford. Bon Appetit workers and dining hall workers are both represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 715.

“On all of the important issues, we won. We have health insurance and a wage parity,” said Maria Estela Diaz, a Bon Appetit worker at the Graduate School of Business. “The good thing about us winning is that we can make sure everyone comes out of poverty. We also won an extra personal day off.”

The victory did not come easily. When Bon Appetit opened negotiations by proposing a 25-cent raise, the majority of the 50 Bon Appetit workers pledged to strike. In response, Bon Appetit threatened to fire any worker who went on strike.

Delegations of Stanford workers from other worksites delivered petitions to Stanford President John Hennessy in the days before the sleep-out. During the sleep-out, students arranged for music and spoken-word groups to perform every evening and worked with Local 715 to organize a candlelight vigil at Hennessy’s home and a joint worker-student rally.

Eventually the tent-city spectacle forced the Stanford administration to meet with the Bon Appetit management. At midnight before the contract expired, the negotiations team announced the victory to a crowd of 100 students still camped out in front of the president’s office. After jubilant speeches by workers and students, the Stanford mariachi band kicked off a victory party that lasted until early morning.

Student and union organizers believe the Bon Appetit victory will set an important precedent for student-labor campaigns on college campuses. Bon Appetit workers are only one of many groups of subcontracted workers who perform the same jobs as directly hired Stanford employees but earn far less in wages and benefits. While directly hired Stanford workers receive free health coverage from the university, many Bon Appetit workers have depended on federal health care programs because their employee plans were unaffordable.

In the last few decades, Stanford has come to depend more and more on hiring outside companies to provide cheaper janitorial and food services for the university. These outside companies often undercut the higher wage and benefit standards on campus and divide the workforce, making it harder for workers to organize. By subcontracting their services, universities all over the country cut costs on the backs of the lowest paid workers and conveniently dodge the responsibility of being a good employer.

Students in the Stanford Labor Action Coalition are working closely with SEIU Local 715, as well as a coalition of student groups like the Stanford NAACP, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and Students for Environmental Action, to make the Bon Appetit campaign part of a larger campaign for a Code of Conduct that would regulate the practices of subcontractors, create a campus living wage, and prevent Stanford or other companies from interfering when workers try to unionize.

Danielle Mahones, an organizer for Local 715, commented after the victory, “I am very, very happy. I want to thank all of the students who supported us throughout the campaign. Without their work, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish all of this.”

The author can be reached at cwebb@stanford.edu