By Jordan Payne
On Friday, Stanford workers and union organizers were asked to remove stickers worn in protest of working conditions in the school’s dining halls.
Workers were told that the stickers’ message, “Respect and a Fair Workload,” was “disparaging of Stanford” and thus went against a union-University agreement. In response, Seth Leibson — a senior organizer for SEIU Local 2007, a union representing over 1,200 workers at Stanford and Santa Clara University — called requests to remove the stickers a violation of workers’ rights.
“Dining workers, other Stanford employees, and students are wearing stickers today precisely because they can no longer tolerate Dining management’s disregard for workers’ health, well-being, and concerns,” he said in a statement. “Instead of listening to what their workers are saying, management is once more suppressing its workers’ voices, betraying Stanford’s values of dialogue and free expression.”
Friday’s sticker-wearing was part of an ongoing campaign. In November, more than 50 workers signed petitions that called on R&DE to address “chronic understaffing” and “unacceptable workloads.” Meanwhile, R&DE has described the criticisms as “one-sided” and inaccurate.
According to Leibson, approximately 100 dining workers, other Stanford employees and students wore the stickers beginning at about 10 a.m. At about 1:30 p.m., Leibson said, management staff began asking workers in several dining halls, including Ricker, Lagunita and Arrillaga, to take their stickers off.
In an email obtained by The Daily that was sent to SEIU Friday, Linda Usoz, director of Employee and Labor Relations (ELR) — a subdivision of University Human Resources — “respectfully request[ed]” that the union direct its members not to wear the stickers, saying that the stickers violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement with Stanford.
The agreement stipulates that union members may not wear “insignia [with] any message that is vulgar, profane, or disparaging of Stanford, or that results in conflict or disruption in the workplace.”
Leibson took issue with the University’s characterization of the stickers, saying that the words “Respect and a Fair Workload” were a “positive statement of our members’ vision for their workplace and the University as a whole.” He argued that supervisors’ requests to workers were out of line.
“When your boss respectfully asks you to do something, that’s an order,” Leibson told The Daily.
“Stickers and buttons are a widely used kind of protected concerted activity among workers in the United States, which is part of the reason it’s shocking that management chose to respond as they did,” he added later.
According to SEIU 2007 President and Campus Landscape Technician Jose Escanuela, there are almost 25 unfilled positions in the dining halls. That understaffing, he said, can lead to serious long-term consequences.
While on break, a group of workers gathered with students, including a Daily writer, as well as Leibson to discuss their complaints about understaffing and the cycle that it creates: The workers said vacant positions leads to overwork, which in turn leads to more people missing work due to sickness or injury and means that the employees present must do even more. In an opinion piece published Friday in The Daily, the SEIU 2007 Dining Organizing Committee cited manual labor tasks like hauling heavy bags that they say used to be shared by four people but now may be done by one or two.
Workers also said they are asked to handle work beyond their designated roles, sometimes doing the tasks of “level 4” or “level 5” workers without the actual classification and the benefits that come with it.
“We used to feel Stanford was a special place to work, where management was concerned with our well-being, listened to our concerns and provided the resources we needed to serve our students,” SEIU’s op-ed reads. “But those days are gone.”
Escanuela said that management has responded verbally to past protests but has not actually addressed the issues.
R&DE spokesperson Jocelyn Breeland took issue with the workers’ criticisms.
“R&DE holds monthly summits with union representatives to discuss the full range of issues under the collective bargaining agreement,” Breeland wrote in an email to The Daily. “The rumor that R&DE has refused to meet with the union outside this process is false. The claim that most disability cases are job-related is false. The allegation that management intimidates workers is false.”
Breeland said R&DE “continue[s] to make progress” on the staffing issues raised previously by the union. However, she said other issues communicated by workers and union representatives to The Daily had not been brought to R&DE, and that the union and University’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) outlines methods to raise them — describing the “only forum” where these personnel matters may be discussed.
“The CBA lays out the process by which individual union members, and the union representatives, can bring concerns to our attention, and it addresses, for example, how positions are filled when workers are out sick and when workers are asked to work at a level other than their assigned position,” she wrote. “R&DE fully complies with the terms of the CBA. To our knowledge, this process is working well.”
An additional area of concern for SEIU is the treatment of so-called “casuals,” or part-time workers. SEIU does not represent these part-time Dining employees but has spoken out on their behalf.
Escanuela said management does not make enough effort to give vacant full-time positions to the many casual workers who want them and to help these workers apply. He described barriers to access for staffers who would be interested.
“We know that most of the folks may not be aware that the only posting for jobs is on the internet and some people may have access issues to apply,” he said.
R&DE has contested the union’s claims, saying it works hard to recruit workers — for example, by providing referral cards to employees and SEIU to find candidates for open positions.
“Casual employees are a talent pool we rely on to fill permanent positions and a significant portion of the current bargaining unit staff initially worked for the university as casual employees,” Breeland said in an email to The Daily in the fall.
Breeland added that R&DE is making a push to hire student staff to supplement operational staff in dining halls, and that students are encouraged to refer friends and acquaintances.
Escanuela said R&DE’s responses to previous coordinated actions in protest of working conditions have made employees feel uncomfortable.
Peter Eugenio, a steward for the union who worked at R&DE for 15 years in roles across campus, said he hopes that the stickers will promote conversation across campus and specifically within the administration and management. But he also recalled a previous demonstration in which R&DE employees wore similar stickers that management also took issue with, saying they were disparaging.
Eugenio said that he was changed from a position with 100 percent benefits to 80 percent after the demonstration, causing other workers to fear retaliation when they speak up to management. He said he was able to move back to 100 percent after documenting his time, sending it to management and meeting multiple times with HR.
“Some workers, they’re in the shadows in fear of not having work,” he said. “I try to advocate for workers that are afraid to speak and that’s why I wanted to be a steward.”
In response to Eugenio’s account, Breeland said R&DE “cannot comment on the personnel situation of any employee”; however, she added that the University prohibits retaliation against any of its employees, including R&DE workers.
“R&DE does not retaliate,” Breeland wrote. “If the union believed an employee had been retaliated against, they have the option to initiate the grievance process under the collective bargaining agreement.”
Friday’s form of protest was chosen to unify and to start conversations with students and other staff members, Escanuela said.
“We want everybody to know that we’re one union and that we all support each other. An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Escanuela. “Sometimes the community doesn’t know all of the stresses that the workforce is put under to meet timelines for hot meals.”
Students also participated in the action. Hannah Zimmerman ’21 became involved with SEIU after learning about the union’s work through the Student and Labor Alliance (SALA). Many SALA members are working with SEIU, creating a petition and circulating stickers in “support of dining hall workers and their need to renegotiate their contracts,” Zimmerman said.
“We’re just … here to support the workers who have put a lot of time into writing new demands that they want and feel like the University hasn’t addressed yet,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman noted that the students were there not only to support the workers but also to engage the larger student body.
“The hope that student activists have is always to engage new people in the student activist movement,” she said. “So I’m hoping that in addition to fighting for the workers we can also have new people get interested in getting involved with student activism on campus.”
Contact Jordan Payne at jpayne1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Fangzhou Liu, Hannah Knowles and Kim Ngo contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article stated that students were asked to remove stickers. The Daily regrets this error.