SLAC Calls for Worker Self-Management in Dining Services

Jeeva Muhil, Eliza Guinn, Michael Kennedy, Student Labor Action Coalition

To the Editors:

Broader Context:

Since May Day is a national day of action for labor rights in the U.S., members of the Student Labor Action Coalition and other interested students chose May 1 to make a stand for workers’ rights on campus. We wanted to both make a statement on campus while also recognizing the increasing attacks on labor that have continued for decades. The Trump administration’s nomination of Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta and its targeting of immigrant and specifically non-white workers further emphasize the need for solidarity within the labor movement both in Northeastern Ohio and nationwide. Historically, the labor movement has privileged exclusively white men over the rest of the global workforce. May Day must be a moment of truly intersectional activism that works in the interests of the working class beyond the historical recipients of labor’s benefits. The labor movement must be the immigrant rights movement, it must be the anti-imperialist movement, it must be the anti-racist movement and it must support gender equality and self-determination. For too long the labor movement has been complicit in its own destruction, because it has prioritized its corporate interests over international and domestic solidarity.

Two weeks ago, SLAC held a labor panel with United Auto Workers members in attendance who expressed their outrage at Bon Appétit Management Company’s management policies, its role in CDS employment decisions such as position eliminations, and its treatment of CDS staff. Bon Appétit’s managers have consistently been disrespectful and dismissive of CDS staff, sometimes to the point of harassment. Dean Holliday, [the Bon Appetit executive chef] at Oberlin, was accused on multiple occasions of sexual misconduct but was never fired by Bon Appétit. Instead, he was moved to Case Western University.

The boycott itself was inspired by the early 2000 “Not With Our Money” divestment campaign, which was originated by the Prison Moratorium Project. In 2001, Oberlin, students led a series of actions, which included a boycott of CDS, to pressure the College to end its contract with Sodexho Marriott Services, the College’s previous dining management company. Their objections were based on Sodexho’s ties to private prisons, its terrible food quality and its exploitative labor practices. Students intended to pressure the College into replacing Sodexho with worker self-managed dining halls; instead, Oberlin replaced it with Bon Appétit. However, like Sodexho, Bon Appétit has ties to fossil fuel industries, military contractors and private prisons.

The parent company of Bon Appétit is Compass Group, a majority stakeholder in the prison services vendor Trinity Services. Compass Group has been involved with numerous controversies in recent years, including underpaying their workers in the U.S. Senate kitchens, overcharging the New York public school system for school lunches, serving Listeria-contaminated food in Canadian prison and serving undeclared horse meat in schools in the U.K., France and Sweden. Compass Group has also been responsible for providing dining and construction services for U.N. Peacekeepers, U.S. Armed Forces in Kuwait and Iraq, as well as major defense contractors including Fluor, RMS, Bechtel, Blackwater and KBR (a subsidiary of Halliburton). According to its own website, Compass Group subsidiary Eurest Support Services “leads the market in providing food and support services to major companies operating in the oil and gas, mining, construction and defence sectors.” ESS has also been investigated multiple times for bribery and fraud. Although campus dining halls may appear isolated from these broader conditions, the dynamics of subcontracting at the macro-level informs and is relevant to their behavior on campus.

Workers have voiced concerns about the quality of food purchased by Bon Appétit, which markets itself as using ethically sourced and sustainable products but buys in bulk from Tyson Chicken, a corporation that has been accused of wage theft and animal cruelty. According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, Tyson also dumps more pollution into waterways each year than even Exxonmobil. Oberlin must end its financial support of the environmental devastation and economic exploitation that Tyson Foods perpetuates.

Schools that directly compete with Oberlin — including Occidental College, Amherst College, Bowdoin College, University of California, Los Angeles and recently Pomona College — all have independent dining services with much higher food rankings than Oberlin. Given the College’s current financial difficulties, it would be extremely beneficial for dining halls to be more economical with their purchasing as well as their food preparation. Oberlin’s dining halls throw away pounds and pounds of food at every meal due to poor product quality as well as large amounts of leftovers. Allowing chefs to determine their own recipes and making them responsible for food preparation and cooking allows them greater control over the amount of food they produce, leading to both better food and less food waste.


Given the amount of information that has been circulating in the past week, we would like to clarify the origins and scope of the boycott. The action was planned in solidarity with workers’ wish for self-management. While we did run it by the union, this specific action was not asked for or planned by the unions themselves. The boycott was planned only for lunch because we were only able to provide food for one meal, and we didn’t want anyone to go hungry. Some people did organize alternative plans for dinner, but we were not involved in those decisions. However, we are incredibly grateful for their support and generosity.

We did not ask either students or CDS workers to leave their shifts. We wanted to state our opposition to Bon Appétit, but we didn’t want anyone to risk their jobs or place extra burdens on those who didn’t feel comfortable walking off the job. This picnic was not just an isolated call for Oberlin to switch to worker self-management in its dining halls; it is also intended as the beginning of a continuing dialogue surrounding student and worker solidarity on Oberlin’s campus.

Vision for the Future of Oberlin Dining:

The Oberlin May Day Coalition is calling for worker self-management in dining services. We do not want Oberlin to replace Bon Appétit with another outside management company, as it did after Sodexho. All of the other private contractors are just as bad as Bon Appétit. Aramark is one of the primary suppliers of prison food within Ohio and worldwide. Chartwells is also owned by Compass Group, and students already got rid of Sodexho. We are calling for a self-managed dining service where workers are able to make decisions regarding the management of the dining halls and are able to represent themselves to the administration, instead of an unrepresentative, corrupt third party. Oberlin students and workers must be represented in decision-making during the current restructuring process to allow for greater equity and accessibility across the board.

– Jeeva Muhil
SLAC co-chair

– Eliza Guinn
SLAC co-chair

– Michael Kennedy
SLAC treasurer