WMNF| Central Florida food service workers could strike next month amid ongoing contract negotiations

While the possibility of a nationwide rail strike looms over the holiday season, and continued strikes by workers in several industries continuing across the country, there is another looming strike threat closer to home in Central Florida.

Last week, more than 200 hospitality workers at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, voted unanimously for a strike, which could take place as early as December 1.

This vote comes amid ongoing contract negotiations between UNITE HERE Local 737, the union representing dishwashers, cooks, concession workers and other hospitality workers at the Orange County Convention Center, and Sodexo, a global company that contracts with the convention facility.

“The results were undeniable,” said Jeremy Haicken, president of UNITE HERE Local 737 at a Monday press conference with union leaders from across the country. “Two hundred and thirty-five voted to authorize a strike. Zero voted against allowing a strike.”

Voter turnout was 84% ​​among full-time workers represented by the union, with additional input from more than 130 on-call workers.

According to Local 737, which represents thousands of hospitality and tourism workers in Central Florida, the region’s tourism industry has not been on strike for more than 20 years. But that could change as early as December 1, the day after the union’s contract with Sodexo expires.

“I support a strike because I need more money in my pocket to pay my bills now that the cost of living has risen so high,” said Jackeline Ponce, a retail and concessions worker at the Orange County Convention Center, which hosts events and trade shows. . which attract more than 1.5 million visitors to the region every year. It is the third largest convention center in the United States.

But Ponce, a nine-year employee and a member of the Local 737’s negotiating committee, said it’s hard to make ends meet on her current pay. “I struggle with food, I struggle with gas, I struggle with my rent because I only make $13.60 an hour.”

As the tourism industry, the heart of Central Florida’s economy, picks up after taking a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, its workers are among the lowest paid in the region. Sodexo’s minimum wage for their employees at the Orange County Convention Center, for example, is currently $13 an hour for on-call workers and $13.50 for full-time workers.

According to MIT’s living wage calculator, that’s well below what it takes to get by in Orange County, home of the so-called “Most Magical Place on Earth.”

The median rent in Orange County is 22% higher than last year. And a new report from the union shows that many of those employed by Central Florida’s top tourism employers, including Sodexo and Walt Disney World, are struggling to make ends meet.

Of the 2,415 hourly wage earners surveyed, 69% said they had no money to pay their rent or mortgage in the past year, while 62% said they had less than $100 in savings.

Union president Jeremy Haicken told WMNF they are calling on Sodexo to offer an $18 minimum wage this year, or a $3 raise for blue-collar workers — whichever is higher, as some Sodexo workers currently earn more, while others earn less.

They have been negotiating a new contract with Sodexo since August and Haicken said the company has not only refused to accept the union’s economic proposal, but has also failed to come up with its own proposal on wages, pension benefits or health insurance. .

“These types of frontline workers in convention centers have been hit very hard by the pandemic and too often have had to bear the brunt of the many event cancellations,” Haicken said Monday. “Our members’ families depend on these jobs, and it’s essential that Sodexo do better so Central Florida families don’t go without basic necessities.”

But while their essential workers struggle with high inflation and rising rents, the same financial hardship is not reflected in Sodexo’s earnings. Sodexo, a global food services and facility management company based in France, reported revenue growth of 21% for fiscal year 2022 and reported a total of approximately $21 billion in revenue. While that’s slightly lower than pre-COVID-19, their Q4 earnings this year returned to pre-pandemic levels.

When a spokesman for Sodexo was reached for comment on the consent vote for the Orange County workers’ strike, he said the vote is “an expected part of the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] negotiations preparation process for Unite Here.”

“Accordingly, we continue to participate in good faith in the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations, in a sincere effort to reach a fair and competitive set of long-term agreements in a timely manner,” the spokesperson added. “Negotiation sessions are scheduled for the coming weeks and we look forward to continuing to offer attractive wages and terms while ensuring labor competitiveness for our customers and consumers.”

But according to the union, those negotiation sessions with Sodexo are not scheduled until December 13 and 14 – two weeks after the workers could have called for a strike.

“We hope it doesn’t have to come to a strike,” Haicken said at Monday’s press conference. “We will continue to negotiate with Sodexo and we hope that we can turn the tide towards reasonable and substantial wage increases, secure a dignified pension and resolve other humiliations. Incredible things, like how on-call workers have to pay for their own uniforms to go to work.”

Sodexo has not responded to WMNF’s question about this claim regarding uniforms, nor have they responded to questions about what Sodexo offered their employees during contract negotiations with Local 737. In addition to wage increases, the union’s proposal also includes a better pension plan for workers and employees. better planning.

And food service workers in Orange County are not alone in their struggle. UNITE HERE announced that union members at the Las Vegas Convention Center, represented by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, will soon vote on strike as well, while UNITE HERE residents representing workers at convention centers in Sacramento, Detroit and New Orleans warned of impending labor disputes over wages and working conditions. All three await negotiations.

“Our members are ready for change,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23, representing Sodexo employees at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. “And we know our members are inspired by their union brethren in Orlando and Las Vegas with the strike votes that are taking place.”

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