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Stirring Support

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With their union contract about to expire, food-service workers at the University of Pittsburgh teamed up with students on Feb. 26 to rally for better wages and benefits.

Nearly 100 workers and students demonstrated outside the university's William Pitt Union before marching into a campus dining hall to deliver a list of demands to the workers' employer, Sodexo. The French company, one of the world's largest catering and facilities-management companies, employs 300 workers at Pitt. Half of those workers are members of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, and since March 1, they have been working without a contract while negotiations continue.

"[Sodexo] has the money," said Henry Gaston, a union member who earns less than $10 an hour. 

Sodexo earned more than $1 billion in profits last year, according to company filings, and is currently the target of an SEIU nationwide campaign.

"We're starting to gain ground," said SEIU organizer Tim Finucan. But victory "is not going to happen overnight."

"Sodexo is committed to treating workers with respect and fairness," wrote company spokesperson Monica Zimmer in an e-mailed statement to City Paper. "Sodexo is in the early stages of negotiation at the University of Pittsburgh. ... We are optimistic that we'll come to an agreement that is acceptable to all parties."

Workers' top concern is the cost of health insurance. Sodexo suspends its health coverage during the summer months, when most students are away. 

"That's ridiculous," said Debbie Wade, a campus cook for 17 years. Wade makes $13.20 an hour, and it costs roughly $800 to buy her family health insurance for two months.

"With the help of the students," Wade said, "[Sodexo will] have to budge a little bit."

Hoisting signs reading, "Students in Solidarity with Service Workers," Pitt students joined workers in chants of "No justice, no peace" as they stood under falling snow. 

While students are getting involved, the university is distancing itself from the situation. 

"This issue is strictly between Sodexo and their employees," said university spokesperson Sharon Blake.

After roughly 20 minutes, demonstrators marched from the William Pitt Union to Litchfield Towers, a unionized dining hall, to deliver a large sign listing demands. "[W]e will do whatever it takes to win a fair contract and move all Sodexo workers forward," the sign read. 

Inside, protesters confronted a cafeteria manager, who threatened to call police if they didn't leave. They eventually did, leaving their list of demands in the dining hall. 

"We'll be back!" they shouted, as cafeteria workers cheered.

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