Cafeteria workers at Lesley and Simmons Join UNITE HERE Local 26
Campus food service workers and their student, faculty, and community allies continue to build a movement for real food, real jobs, & thriving communities in Cambridge and Boston.
In just 18 months, 650 dining hall workers at Harvard Law School, Northeastern University, Lesley University, the Episcopal Divinity School, and Simmons College have voted to join UNITE HERE Local 26, Greater Boston’s union of food service and hotel workers.
This spring saw 80 workers at Lesley join the union on March 1 and, most recently, 70 workers at Simmons join through an NLRB election that was held on April 24.
“We made a family out of ourselves”
Every September, a quarter million students from around the world breathe life into Cambridge and Boston, filling over fifty colleges and universities. Arriving students, many of whom are new to the area or to the country, find that in the dining halls they develop a bond with each other and with the workers who care for them.
Every day, thousands of food service workers — mostly women, immigrants and people of color — sustain them and show them love.
“I love my job because I love my students”, says Estella Cosby, a cook at Simmons, and it shows. When winter storm ‘Nemo’ shut down roads, schools, and businesses in February, Stella walked in the snow for an hour to reach campus. During the citywide lockdown in April, cook Melvin Butler and five co-workers kept the cafeteria running from morning to night. “I’m needed. You all need to eat!” he told astonished students.
For Ren Kenney and hundreds of other students, the love is mutual: “When I first got to Simmons, the cafeteria workers treated me with kindness, like family. They take care of us. So when the workers started organizing, I had their back the way they had mine. That’s what community is about”, says the rising senior.
“We made a family out of ourselves because all we had was each other. I got to know the students and professors, I shared a little about myself, they shared a little about themselves, and then students became like my sisters and daughters, and professors became like my aunts and mothers,” says Stella.
“Stick Together, and we have power”
Last fall, worker committees, supported by students, faculty and community allies from both sides of the Charles River began to build bridges to bring it all together. Andre Lucas, a cook at Lesley, practiced an idea that would later become the campaign’s motto: “in Haiti we say, ‘L’union fait la force’ — stick together, and we have power.” Every day after work, Andre spent time getting to know workers from other kitchens and cafeterias, forging bonds that crossed campuses.
From proudly wearing ‘We Love our Cafeteria Workers’ buttons to collecting hundreds of petition signatures, “students gave us motivation and confidence”, says Nico Cotto, a cook at Simmons. Lesley’s People’s Alliance for Worker Solidarity (PAWS), sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” in one of many delegations to management. Simmons’ Fighting Injustice Now at Simmons (FINS) designed personalized cards for each and every worker before election day.
Building Momentum in Boston
The family, and the movement, will continue to grow, with contract negotiations at Simmons and Lesley ongoing, and thousands of food service workers in the Boston area who are still without a union.
Today, workers and students from both institutions are taking their stories and organizing experience beyond their campuses, driving new organizing across Greater Boston: “I love talking to workers and visiting them in their homes. It just makes me want to do more”, says Edith “Tiny” Figueroa, a cook at Simmons for 5 years.
Theresa Powers, a rising senior at Lesley, agrees: “Seeing the change at Lesley made me want to work on bringing those changes to food service workers all over Boston. When all workers are receiving fair wages, respect and dignity — that’s going to have a powerful effect on their communities.”