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SODEXO and the University of Denver…

October 4, 2010

Rally of SODEXO workers at Morehouse College in Atlanta, August 12, 2010

Strike At George Mason University, Virginia, September, 2010

SODEXO Workers in Columbia Tell Without Overtime Pay, Anti-Union Threats, September 2010

HRW Report – Human Right Watch Report on Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinationals (includes a section on SODEXO’s practices in the USA)

Crocodyl’s SODEXO Analysis

SODEXO: A Corporate Profile – an analysis of the company from the UK, but includes some of the history of its U.S. practices

April 2010 Rally In Support of Union Organizing of SODEXO workers at the University of Denver

Article from Business Week 2-15-2010 American Unions With European Employers

University of Washington Considering Kicking Out SODEXO – December 13, 2010 article on the campaign on the Seattle campus

_____________

It’s called SODEXO – an acronym for something, but what? – and it runs the concessions at the University of Denver where I work. Until recently I haven’t known much about them, other than a fair percentage of their employees appear to be Black and Hispanic women, at least those I have run into at Cherrington Hall, Nagel Hall and on `the bridge’ over Evans Ave. But since last April I’ve learned a bit more. At that time,

Headquarters of the Confederation Generale de Travail (CGT) a French union confederation, one of the groups that recently invited SODEXO workers from the US (including the University of Denver) and Colombia to Paris to give testimony on worker conditions at SODEXO sites outside of Paris (where the company is headquartered)

university SODEXO employees supported by some student groups and community leaders, including a Denver city councilman, Chris Nevitt,  and several members of the state legislature, held a rally supporting SODEXO employees right to form a union – specifically in this case, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and to engage in collective bargaining with the company over wages and working conditions.

I attended the rally, more out of curiosity than anything else, and it was only then that I came to understand, if ever so vaguely, the working conditions and problems of a part of the university community about which, it turned out I knew so little, and I suspect, that my colleagues and others in the `university family’ know even less. (for details of the rally see the link `April 2010 Rally’ above).

Now six months later, it appears that progress towards unionization has been slow. Recently  – just last week – an attempt by some SODEXO employees accompanied by an SEIU union rep to meet with the university administration was rebuffed, security called in and if those involved were not physically manhandled, it seems they were treated rather rudely.

It appears the university wants none of it.

In the past, the university has claimed `neutrality’ in the SODEXO-SEIU stand-off, arguing that it is SODEXO and not the University of Denver that employs the 120 or so workers at the university, thus washing their hands of the affair.

Technically of course the university is both `right’ and …I believe…wrong.

Yes, SODEXO is the employer, but then it has a contract with the university, which, if I am not mistaken, does bear some legal responsibility here which it does not seem willing to own up to. Beyond legal considerations, the university has its own ethical standards for fair treatment that it claims to uphold. Wouldn’t the SODEXO workers at D.U. fall under these general guidelines?

A few days ago, on Tuesday, October 5, SEIU held a community meeting at a church across the street from the university where a panel of community leaders and a few faculty members listened to testimony from SODEXO employees and two students. Entitled `Is A Multinational Corporation Robbing Our Communities?, it proved to be something of an `eye-opener’.

The situations described give cause for concern. Admittedly they are at this point allegations, but allegations that appear credible:

  • a SODEXO cook in one of the university dormitories alleged that, to complete his work satisfactorily, he had to work 60 hours a week, half of that overtime. But then overtime was cut, but the workload remained the same, so that now he and other cooks had to do in 40 hours what they previously did in 60. He comes back after his 40 hour a week shift and basically works the extra 20 hours for no pay.
  • another SODEXO employee complained about the health insurance plan which costs $120 a week (or $480 a month) and it turns out, offers scanty coverage. $480 a month is around half (and sometimes more) of SODEXO employees monthly salary. Few can afford it; many therefore go without it. Reminded me of Walmart policies which are similar: offering health care that is un-affordable for many of their work force. As, it was alleged, the company does not offer sick leave, workers are pressed to work through their illnesses.
  • the third SODEXO employ to, in the words of the Quakers’ `bear witness’ , spoke of work schedules being changed without notice or imput. She also spoke of different forms of intimidation by both SODEXO management at D.U. and the university security force. I was later told that it is company policy that after work SODEXO employees are  essentially ordered off the campus, and told they should have no contact with students and faculty. Someone who talked to me, at my request, about the situation of SODEXO employees (as I was unfamiliar with any of this) was afterwards, criticized for having coffee with me!! and given a warning not to do it again.

Evaluating the credibility and legitimacy of these complaints does not seem to concern either SODEXO or the University of Denver. All attempts on the part of the employees, union, concerned students to meet with either SODEXO reps or the university authorities to air their complaints, have been with a wall of silence and refusal. The University washes its hands of responsibility, arguing that the complaints should be directed to  SODEXO. But  SODEXO refuses to even consider a meeting, made even more remote by the fact that company’s human relations representative for Colorado is based in California, 1200 miles away.

Just Who Is SODEXO?

The `SODEXO Family’ at the University of Denver includes, as mentioned above, about 120 workers, `mainly women’ I am told, many of whom are Spanish speaking from Latin America. They work in retail, catering and are found all over the campus. SODEXO also has contracts with Regis University and the Aurara Campus – which houses the University of Colorado-Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver and Community College of Denver, and who knows, many more establishments in the state.

Their Colorado operations are just a small part of their overall US operations. All tolled, SODEXO employs 110,000 workers throughout the country and about 355,000 worldwide in 80 countries.  French based, they are described as the largest food concession and catering firm in the world (this according to Le Monde July 31, 2010 edition) and are present in 29,000 sites world wide. 2007 revenues topped 13.385 million Euro (about $17 billion). In 2008 they ranked 456 on the Global Fortune 500 list of companies, which places them in the world corporate big leagues.

Faculty at George Mason University Call on the Administration There To Support SODEXO Workers Grievances and Respect the Union Drive2010 edition) so they are sizable international players.

Along with Aramark Corp and the Compass Group, the French based company dominates food service industry. SODEXO operates cafeterias in companies, public agencies, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, assisted-living facilities, US military mess halls, and private prisons. According to a British corporate watchdog website (Crocodyl), among SODEXO’s controversial contracts include:

  • feeding the U.S. Military in the Gulf and elsewhere as well as assisting Royal Dutch Shell  in exploiting oil on Sakhalin Island, in the Far East of Russia
  • SODEXO has also been criticized – not only in the USA in the current campaign but worldwide – for opposing organized labor and going one step further. In 1998, its handbook  for managers on how to fight unions in the workplace was leaded to the International Hotel Workers and Restaurant Employees Union.

One has to wonder whether this guide book to corporate activity is used at the University of Denver campus? So… war, prisons, anti-unionism and oil. Quite a track record?

Their US operations have grown considerably over the past ten years, the company taking advantage of the declining dollar and, compared to Europe, lax labor standards, making their US operations more profitable than in France where unions are stronger than here in the US of A. If in the past, it was U.S. based companies that exported its jobs to take advantage of lower wages abroad, now in certain sectors of the economy, foreign companies are exporting their manufacturing and service jobs here to do likewise, treating the US something like a Third World peripheral source of labor. SODEXO’s US practices mirror those of other foreign companies, mostly European and Japanese that have made major efforts to buy into the US economy, like BMW or Toyota. In a pattern that SODEXO would follow, BMW workers here in the United States make about half the wages of workers in Germany with the same job description. It’s called by some critics `the Third World in America’ not only because of the lower wage rates but also because much of the work force is non-white and female.

Furthermore, SODEXO has intensified its US operations in the past few years, hoping to take advantage of the financial crisis, understanding the pressure on state and federal government agencies, as well as private sector companies, to cut production costs by outsourcing services to companies like its own. Perhaps it is these financial considerations that provide a rationale for the University’s reluctance to  challenge the status quo on this issue? SODEXO has understood the possibility of contracts in the United States offering a considerable niche to its activities in an environment where privatization of public services combined with a lower tax base to pressure state institutions to seek cost cutting measures.

As the structural crisis in the economy also affects the private sector as well, yet another opening for SODEXO contracts presented itself to a company that 25 years ago was little more than a middle sized European catering company. The economic shift in both the United States and Great Britain, initiated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – still in force today – gave the company its opening to a dramatic global expansion. Key to that expansion has been the company’s commitment to deliver its services at rock bottom rates. It prefers, where it can get it, long term contracts. To provide its surfaces at competitive rates, internationally, the company has had to both purchase cheap food in bulk and keep its labor costs down.

SODEXO Claims..

SODEXO claims that it is being `held hostage’ by SEIU and has denied or tried to rationalize many of the allegations coming from its American work force. Poor SODEXO! For example, it cites a number of awards it has won here in the United States for its labor practices, among them:

  • Fortune Magazine has called the company “one of the most admired companies” working in the USA
  • Working Mother Magazine has described it as one of the best places to work for hourly employees
  • Diversity Inc. has labeled it among the best for its policies towards women, minorities and the handicapped

Actor Danny Glover Arrested In April with then SEIU President Andy Stern Protesting SODEXO Labor Practices in USA

Needless to say, the company markets such praise with pride.

It also claims that while its America wage rate is admittedly low – around $14,500 is the average annual salary for 80% of its US work force – that it is competitive with companies in the same field (hardly a convincing argument in a field that has notoriously low wages) and that more of its workers than in the past have health insurance. Try living and raising a family on $14,500 in the United States, hardly enough to cover rent and utilities. Good way to go on a diet though.

SODEXO Workers Claim…

The grievances expressed  recently by University of Denver SODEXO workers mirror national trends. Charges of low pay, poor working conditions, harassment of unionization drives in this company’s US operations have become something close to endemic, charges that are too widespread beyond the University of Denver not to be taken seriously. Or perhaps that should be restated: the university should take them seriously.

Any serious goggle search of SODEXO’s suggests that the make up the company tries to put on its public face, simply covers a record of social boils that will not go away. To give just a sampling of its problems in the United States:

  • SODEXO won an $881 million contract in 2001 to provide food services for all the US Marine mess halls in the United States. Since that time, the cost of the contract has ballooned 36% to $1.2 billion, or a cost over-run of nearly $520 million, thus SODEXO increased the costs and passed then on to taxpayers. U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro has called for a G.A.O investigation. Meanwhile the contract with the Marines just expired. Right about now it will either be ended or extended. In an attempt to get a contract renewal, SODEXO hired former US Rep Dick Gephardt, known during his time in the House as a `friend of labor’ as a lobbyist to get the contract renewed.
  • The SODEXO-US Marine relationship has been marred in other ways. In 2007 SODEXO had to shut down a major `cook-chili facility’ in Tennessee. It is the central hub of their Marine service operation out of which the food was cooked, chilled and transported. The facility had been tagged with numerous health violations including rodent infestation and in June of that year, SODEXO had to recall 2,768 pounds of `ready-to-eat’ chicken products that may have been contaminated with Listeria, a rare but potentially lethal food born infection. Records show that 69 cases of chicken products subject to recall were sent to two west coast Marine facilities: Camp Pendleton andthe Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego
  • SODEXO also lost food service and facilities’ contracts with more than 20 U.S. school districts durig the 2009-2010 school year, that the company will not absorb until its 2011 financial statement. These losses include the company’s second largest school food service account, with the Washoe County, Nevada  schools, as well as a janitorial contract with the School District of Philadelphia, by far the largest school district on SODEXO’s roster
  • SODEXO’s contract procurement practices may also face increased scrutiny this year – particularly in the highly regulated  U.S. school food services sector – in the wake of SODEXO’s $20 million settlement with the New York State Attorney General’s office. The settlement was reached in July 2010, after an investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office found “that the company promised to provide goods at cost but it failed to acknowledge rebates from suppliers, resulting in illegal overcharging to the schools.
  • Within weeks of the SODEXO-NY State settlement, Assembly members in New Jersey called on their state’s Attorney General to investigate SODEXO’s financial dealings with 73 New Jersey school districts. New Jersey’s Berkeley Public Schools was the first of the districts in SODEXO’s third largest market for school food services to publicly announce its own audit of SODEXO records.
  • In part, these policy violations on SODEXO’s part has led to Congressional calls for a complete review of federal contract school meal programs

This is just a sampling of the problems – and unethical practices – of SODEXO’s US operations. And its US

Dr. Alan Gilbert, University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies Prof, Supporting SODEXO Workers on Campus, April 2010

operations are no small thing as the North American market makes up a full 39% of total SODEXO revenue, while the company’s `Global Education’ sector (that includes serving educational facilities worldwide, not just in the USA) makes up 22.5% of their total revenues. SODEXO’s net worth currently stands at E-150 billion (Euros) or around $200 billion.

It is not just in the United States that SODEXO workers are airing grievances against the company. At a meeting in Paris this past summer sponsored by different French union federations, there were also SODEXO workers from Turkey, Colombia and some African countries. Despite the differences in economies, culture, their complaints about the company were remarkably similar. Coincidence?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Sterling Field permalink
    October 4, 2010 7:44 pm

    Professor Prince,

    As always a remarkable post! I firmly believe in unions and in unionization of workers, mainly because of these sorts of treatments that the workers receive. Another testimony to our countries willingness to exploit and use a marginalized peoples.

    • October 4, 2010 8:22 pm

      Sterling. How goes it?

      Heard a tale last night…friends from out of town who like to crow about their kids. Who doesn’t? Turns out that their daughter had worked for one of the bigger – not to be named – internet companies, was `interfacing’ whatever that means, between blackberries and `people’ or something like that. Traveled the world in this work and made $100,000 plus annually to boot. But the company nearly worked her to death; eventually the workload and incessant travel got to her. But she couldn’t say no to the added workload. Living on 10 hours of sleep a week isn’t good for the soul or the body and the soul snapped. She was found about a year ago nude in front of an apartment building in a face off with a police SWAT squad, she holding a broken wine bottle. Ended peacefully. Took a year, alot of heavy anti-psychotic drugs and some loving care to bring her back from the edge.

      A union might have helped, so it’s not just food service workers who need them. but then you know about that! Cheers, rjp

      Also for a less complimentary assessment of my blog skills check out the last comment in my recent blog on Hagee (Second Coming of John Hagee To Denver – September 13)

  2. October 6, 2010 7:03 am

    Good day!This was a really marvelous blog!
    I come from roma, I was fortunate to search your blog in digg
    Also I obtain a lot in your Topics really thank your very much i will come later

  3. October 7, 2010 4:13 am

    Very nice site!

  4. October 31, 2010 12:38 pm

    there are lots of cheap foods on the market that taste like crap but there are good quality ones too ”

    • October 31, 2010 2:11 pm

      tell me about the good quality cheap foods? or better, tell SODEXO.

  5. November 24, 2010 11:27 am

    you can always buy cheap foods on any supermarket these days because food production is mechanized already ‘,,

  6. December 3, 2010 7:20 am

    You certainly deserve a round of applause for your post and more specifically, your blog in general. Very high quality material.

  7. December 6, 2010 7:05 am

    hello thanks for the article.

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  9. December 18, 2010 8:52 pm

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  11. RugenickPt permalink
    December 24, 2010 6:03 am

    Hi everyone! I’m from London but am living in Berlin at the moment.
    Gotta like this forum!

    ____________________________________
    Barrater is my life

  12. January 27, 2013 7:06 pm

    Whatever honestly inspired u to post “SODEXO and the University of Denver Rob Prince’s Blog”? Iseriously appreciated the post! Thanks for your effort -Latia

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