The public status of 15 Southern Oregon University food services employees is at stake in an ongoing negotiation between the university administration and the Service Employees International Union over whether the workers will remain under the SOU umbrella or become privatized under the Minnesota-based A’viands Food and Services Management.
“[Privatization] would affect us immediately. Fifteen people would see a tremendous reduction in their paychecks and benefits,” said Kevin Hare, the university property specialist in charge of overseeing inventory controls and vendor delivery on campus.
SOU signed a 10-year contract with A’viands last August, replacing Sodexo Inc. as the university’s food service provider. The incentive offered by SOU to potential replacement contractors was to offer them the option of taking on the SOU employees as their own.
According to Laure Stockton, the SEIU Local 503 organizer assigned to the SOU campus and responsible for working out business issues with the administration, this offer violates the “spirit” of the school’s contract with the union, specifically Article 13 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The contract states that the employer is to notify the union at least 30 days before requesting bids or proposals for out-contracting if the results of a prior formal feasibility study, designed to run a cost-benefit analysis of contracting-out, indicates that the decision would likely displace bargaining members.
During the 30 day period, the contract states “the Employer shall not request any bids or proposals and the Union shall have the opportunity to submit an alternate proposal.”
The SEIU contends that this latter provision has not been satisfactorily met by the SOU administration.
“We’ve filed a grievance and we walked the administration through that. We were disagreed with the university over whether the criteria [of the contract] had been met. We offered a counter-proposal,” said Stockton.
The alternate proposal was designed to provide quality and savings that Stockton claimed could match the projected $105,000 the university would save by handing over its employees to A’viands.
“It’s our contention that we can meet financially with this new company. There is no need to shift over to a private contractor,” said Hare.
Hare went on to say that moving university food services under the A’viands banner would make it difficult or impossible for the 15 affected employees to afford the health insurance that is currently provided in the benefit package.
“We would have to pay for the benefits ourselves,” he said. “If I had to purchase my own insurance for a thousand dollars a month, that’s 45 percent of my take-home pay. I would have to have a lesser quality healthcare that affects my family.”
Hare also expressed concern that the effects of privatizing food services exclusively under the A’viands banner would spread to the larger community. “There is a return to keeping our workers as SOU employees that is more than financial,” said Hare.
But Hare and Stockton both said their grievance had nothing to do with the quality of A’viands’ service, which they praised.
“Sodexo was a poor match our food service program. After three years, they just were not engaging and it was not a good relationship. A’viands seems a much better match. They turned things around in just six months,” said Hare.
Stockton also commended the university administration for the way it handled the first meeting. While SOU has rejected SEIU’s alternate proposal, it has agreed to engage with the union in a committee capacity to attempt serious negotiation of a mutually-agreeable contract.
“It was very positive. There was a nice give-and-take and it was constructive. It is not an antagonistic relationship,” she said.
Jay Stephens, director of SOU’s Human Resource Services, said the administration presented SEIU with their own feasibility plan that the latter did not agree to, but that he remains optimistic about where the talks are headed.
“We want to come to a resolution that works with everybody. It’s going well so far. We’re talking and listening and I’m positive,” Stephens remarked.
Despite SOU’s interest in avoiding the legal arbitration that could result from another SEIU grievance, Stockton said grassroots student support would be appreciated if matters came to that point.
“One way to support us is to eat here. We might see a few more smiles on the people serving you,” said Hare, who has been an employee of SOU for 22 years.