Food service contractor heads list of gripes at UAlbany May Day rally

Where to begin, the campus activist asked rhetorically.

Where to begin, the campus activist asked rhetorically.

“We’re asking for faculty diversity, for a more diverse curriculum, for GAs and TAs to get paid more,” said Cathy Rojas, ticking issues off from one index finger to the other.

They were asking the University at Albany to sever its ties with Coca-Cola and to stop excessive policing of minority students. They wanted the university to stop raising tuition and to start implementing gender-neutral bathrooms for faculty and staff.

But really, what spurred Wednesday’s rally outside the Campus Center fountain was the university’s decision to contract its campus dining services to Sodexo Inc., a multibillion-dollar food services company that will soon take over from Chartwells Dining Services. The news broke last week, when Chartwells filed a notice with the state Department of Labor that its contract with UAlbany had been severed and it would be forced to lay off 471 employees.

In 2006, Sodexo settled an $80 million class action discrimination lawsuit brought by black employees who said they weren’t being promoted at the same rate as their white colleagues. The company has instituted a few policies since then that encourage the hiring and promotion of minorities, but a group of about 75 UAlbany students seemed less than impressed with its track record.

“If I discriminate against somebody for being black, that has no power to it,” said Rojas, president of the Students Revolutionary Coalition. “It doesn’t disenfranchise them from getting an education. It doesn’t disenfranchise them economically. It doesn’t take away food from their table. But if discrimination is implemented institutionally, then it does. So when the university says ‘We have a commitment against racism, we have a commitment for diversity’ — how true is your commitment when you’re supporting institutionalized racism?”

Layoffs of Chartwells employees began last week and they all will be gone by June 30.

The Students Revolutionary Coalition demanded the University Auxiliary Services stop running a food monopoly on campus “which does not allow small businesses or farm-to-table organizations to provide healthy, local and diverse food options on campus.”

Its demands didn’t end there.

Rally members holding “Fair Trade Campus Now” signs handed out information sheets to students who wandered into the crowd Wednesday. One of them included a list of 11 demands from the student organization, which is made up of minority students and allies committed to social change on campus and in the community.

James Searle said he is living under the poverty level and wants to know when the university would start reimbursing him and his teaching assistant colleagues fairly. He claims the university pays its TAs, graduate assistants and adjunct professors salaries that fall below the living wage in Albany County, which is cited as at least $19,766 a year.

“Many of us work here,” he said into a microphone affixed to a small podium by the fountain. “We love teaching students. We love the work we do. But much like the undergraduates, we feel like our voices are not heard and that our labor is not respected.”

A business agent for the Graduate Student Employees Union CWA 1104, Searle spoke out for workers rights at UAlbany. His peers wore red shirts with slogans for “Living Wage Now!!”

Out-of-state and international graduate students have it especially hard, he said, because of the higher tuition and extensive fees they face under SUNY tuition policy.

The group ended the rally Wednesday afternoon with a march to the university’s administration building, where they vowed to stay until someone could tell them when their demands would be met.

A spokesman for UAlbany did not respond to request for comment for this story Wednesday.

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