Seeking Better Pay and Workplace Conditions, Sodexo Food Service Workers Announce Strike Votes at Major U.S. Convention Centers
As the meetings and trade show industry continues its post-pandemic rebound, Sodexo convention center workers in five major convention markets are warning of looming labor disputes over what they describe as poor working conditions and stagnant wages. The potentially impacted venues include the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando, Fla., the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Huntington Place in Detroit and the SAFE Credit Union Convention Center in Sacramento, Calif.
On Nov. 21, cooks, dishwashers, banquet servers, concession cashiers and other Sodexo workers at the OCCC announced they had voted to authorize a strike by 100 percent. Meanwhile, LVCC workers of Centerplate, which Sodexo purchased in 2017, will hold a strike vote on Dec. 7 and 8. (Update: Since this story was published, the LVCC strike vote has been held, with Sodexo workers at the LVCC unanimously voting to authorize a strike should a contract not be reached during ongoing negotiations. See story here.) All of these hospitality employees are represented by UNITE HERE!, the hospitality workers’ union in the U.S. and Canada that represents more than 300,000 workers in hotels, gaming and food service establishments, and airports.
The strike vote announcement comes on the heels of a recent Sodexo report touting the company’s “strong increase in revenues and profitability in Fiscal 2022.” Meanwhile, meeting levels in 2023 and 2024 are expected to surpass those from 2019, according to a recent Meetings Recovery Forecast by hospitality data insights provider Knowland. Yet Sodexo food service workers at convention centers say their jobs aren’t enough to keep up with the cost of living, according to D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE!, during the union’s Nov. 21 press conference.
“These convention centers and their workers were hit quite hard by the pandemic, [and now] inflation that has taken a real toll on those workers, their families and their standard of living,” Taylor explained. “We have a very simple ask of Sodexo: Sodexo workers need a raise. We need substantial wages to keep up with inflation and to make sure we can provide for ourselves and our loved ones.”
According to UNITE HERE! representatives, the average hourly wage of Sodexo convention workers at all five convention centers in Feb. 2020 was $11.77 per hour and only increased 5.7% to $12.44 by Aug. 2022, while the national seasonally adjusted inflation between those dates was 14.1%.
Of the 154 out of 449 Sodexo convention workers UNITE HERE! surveyed at the convention centers in Detroit, Sacramento and Las Vegas, 84% reported having trouble covering at least one expense—rent or mortgage, food, utilities, transportation, healthcare, childcare—in the past year, and of those, 71% reported having trouble covering more than one expense, according to UNITE HERE! officials
In addition to low wages, Sodexo convention center workers report they are doing more work with less help. Between February 2020 and August 2022, all five convention centers saw a 38% reduction of Sodexo’s workforce, while several departments across the convention centers saw massive decreases in jobs: 53% of kitchen jobs, 50% of bar jobs and 47% of quick service jobs were lost. Additionally, 57% of black workers did not keep their jobs, compared to 51% of white workers.
“The industry is saying 2023 will be a good year for them, and the workers who make meetings and events possible deserve to share in that recovery,” Taylor said. “But instead, Sodexo is using pandemic job eliminations as an opportunity to keep down labor costs and boost their profits. Strikes at the country’s second- and third-largest convention centers are a real possibility if Sodexo doesn’t start treating workers with the respect they deserve.”
According to Sodexo officials, the hospitality company is working to forge a path forward with its foodservice workers as it engages in ongoing conversations with union representatives to prevent labor strikes at the five convention venues. They asserted that meeting planners coming to these venues in the coming weeks should rest assured that their events will go on smoothly as planned.
“We respect the right of our employees to choose to be represented by a union,” said Sodexo officials in an official statement. “This is proven by the hundreds of CBAs we have in good standing across the country. Our employees have, and have always had, the right under federal law to choose to be represented or not to be represented by a union. Taking a strike vote is an expected part of the CBA negotiations preparation process for UNITE HERE!”
They continued, “Accordingly, we continue to engage in good faith during ongoing CBA negotiations, in a sincere attempt to reach a fair and competitive set of long-term agreements in a timely manner. Bargaining sessions are scheduled in the weeks ahead, and we look forward to continuing to offer attractive wages and conditions while ensuring labor competitivity for our clients and consumers.”
Sodexo officials also shared the following positive statistics:
- 7 years: The average tenure for Sodexo Live! full-time employees compared to 2.3 years for workers overall in the leisure and hospitality industry
- 80 percent: The satisfaction and engagement rate among employees
- 68 percent: The expansion of employees into management positions in the last year
- 28 percent: African American representation in senior leadership roles over the same time period
To further take care of its full-time employees, the company recently launched its new Sodexo Live! People Ambition program focused on career advancement, mental health and boosting diversity. Along with enhanced compensation, rewards and employee benefits, the program will also include bolstered career development opportunities and other employee-centric enhancements.
In the meantime, UNITE HERE! is in active bargaining with Sodexo in Orlando (UNITE HERE Local 737) and Las Vegas (Culinary Workers Union Local 226), and is awaiting bargaining in New Orleans (UNITE HERE Local 23), Sacramento (UNITE HERE Local 49) and Detroit (UNITE HERE Local 24). While the bargaining units and disputes at each convention center are distinct, key issues include wage increases, affordable health care, secure retirement and fair scheduling, they added.
“I support a strike because I need more money in my pocket to pay my bills when the cost of life has gone up so much,” said Jackeline Ponce, a Sodexo retail worker at the OCCC. “I struggle with food, rent and gas with the money I make. I make $13.60 [per hour], and our convention center is one of the biggest in the country. My coworkers and I are ready to do what it takes to win the contract we need.”