Convention center workers threaten to go on strike over working conditions

NEW ORLEANS — Sodexo Food Service workers from five major convention centers across the country have announced demands to improve working conditions, threatening that failure to meet the demands could lead to strikes.

Foodservice workers at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center have teamed up with Unite Here Local 23 in New Orleans to submit a list of demands to Sodexo ahead of the company’s Dec. 31 contract renewal. Demands include wage increases, affordable health care, secure retirement pensions and fair planning. They join Sodexo employees from convention centers across the country in the top five tourism markets, including Las Vegas, Sacramento, California, Orlando, Florida and Detroit, in demanding better working conditions.

Sodexo did not immediately respond to Verite’s request for comment.

New Orleans is one of the nation’s premier convention and tourism cities. With COVID-19 gathering restrictions a thing of the past, New Orleans’ meetings and events industry is expected to return to pre-pandemic tourism numbers and potentially surpass them in 2023. The Morial Convention Center prepares for its peak Mardi Gras balls will be held this season alongside conferences and events related to the popular Essence Music Festival.

The New Orleans Convention Center, the sixth largest in the country, had 92 employees through Sodexo as of August this year, down 50% from the 186 employees in February 2020 before the pandemic. According to a Unite Here press release, between February 2020 and August 2022, 53% of kitchen jobs, 50% of bar jobs and 47% of quick service jobs were lost.

At a news conference held on Monday (November 21), Unite Here noted that black Sodexo workers were more likely to lose their jobs as a result of downsizing. The organization found that 57% of black employees lost their jobs, compared to 51% of their white counterparts.

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With fewer employees, those who stay are expected to do “more work with less help” and have not been adequately compensated for the extra work, according to Unite Here national president D. Taylor. Taylor said that nationally, 84% of convention center workers surveyed said they had difficulty covering essentials like rent, groceries or transportation.

“New Orleans hospitality workers are struggling, Sodexo convention center workers are struggling,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23. “Too many workers work multiple jobs just to survive.”

Wanoneica Arnold, a Sodexo chef at the Morial Convention Center, is one of the Sodexo workers who said she was struggling to make ends meet. She only wants basic working conditions.

“If I got a raise, I could afford an apartment,” Arnold said. “I developed high blood pressure and lost a tooth while working at Sodexo. I want to see fair pay, retirement, medical, dental, and vision, medical time off, and raises across the board.

The average hourly wage for convention center workers in the top tourism markets was $11.77 per hour in February 2020 and increased to $12.44 per hour by August 2022. The lowest untipped wage at the Morial Convention Center is $13.25 per hour. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for an adult with no children in the city of New Orleans is $16.79 per hour.

Sodexo workers in other markets have already begun responding to their demands. In Orlando, workers at the Orange County Convention Center voted unanimously last week to authorize a strike. Sodexo’s contract expires at the end of the month, said Jeremy Haicken, president of Unite Here’s Florida Chapter. If the demands of the OCCC workers are not taken into account in the contract extension, they intend to go on strike, he said. According to Haicken, this would be the first strike in Orlando in more than 20 years.

Efforts to organize New Orleans Sodexo employees extend beyond the Morial Convention Center. Mensa workers at Loyola University New Orleans joined forces with the Catholic Labor Network early in the fall semester to demand higher wages and lower healthcare costs.

In 2011, Sodexo employees at Tulane University staged a walkout and a two-day walkout. These actions were spurred by allegations that Sodexo owes more than $20,000 in unpaid overtime wages and is interfering with employees’ rights to unionize. The dispute ended up in court, where the case was eventually dropped.

“Tourism is the heart of New Orleans and Sodexo can play a critical role in our city by stepping up and showing that a job in hospitality…can be enough,” said Patrick-Cooper.

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This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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