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(From left to right) College senior Erica Kimmel, College sophomore Brendan Van Gorder, dining hall worker Kareem Wallace, College senior Meghna Chandra and College sophomore Chloe Sigal drop off a letter with Business Services.

Credit: Courtesy of Becky Havivi

“This is it. This is history,” said Kareem Wallace, a cook at Penn Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons, as he clutched a document that marked the debut of a campaign for “a better future” for him and his colleagues.

For 18 months, he and other non-unionized dining hall workers have planned to push for a change in their employment conditions.

On Monday morning, he and seven Student Labor Action Project members delivered a concerted activity letter to the Penn Business Services office to notify Penn of the employees’ organizing efforts. Eleven dining hall workers signed the document.

Wallace said the long-term goal of the campaign is to receive better sick pay, vacation time and wages. “The letter is like our voice,” he explained.

The campaign, called Justice on the Menu, is now public. The group has set up an online petition calling on Penn President Amy Gutmann to support higher wages and more sick days for the non-unionized dining hall workers.

From now on, “students will be involved in direct actions, grassroots organizing,” said College junior Penny Jennewein, the campaign’s press contact. “These are people that we know, they are part of the community.”

According to the campaign’s website, seven other student groups support these demands, including Penn Democrats, the Latino Coalition, the Reform Jewish Community at Penn and the Conservative Jewish Community at Penn.

Yet Wallace said he was worried he might be singled out as the “ring leader” as a result of publicizing the campaign. “They’ll look for any reason to fire me,” he said.

He also worries his position might be jeopardized by the looming restructuring of Hillel, which will switch to a la carte Dining Dollar payments beginning next fall. “Everybody’s talking about how much Penn can make, not about the workers,” he said.

Bonnie Powell, Bon Appétit’s Director of Communications, said in an email that workers’ “continued employment with Bon Appétit is not in danger from [the petition] or from planned program changes at Hillel.”

“We welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue we had already begun,” she added.

Another copy of the letter was delivered to the National Labor Relations Board. Nancy Cleland, NLRB Director of Public Affairs, said though the agency will not get involved unless there is a retaliation against the workers, “we are going to defend [the workers’] right to ask for more money.”

“Both Penn and Bon Appétit welcome and appreciate feedback from their employees,” Penn Business Services spokesperson Barbara Lea-Kruger said in an email. “While there will be changes to the dining operation at Hillel, it does not result in any full time employees losing their jobs.”

At Penn, there are two types of employment agreements for dining hall employees.

The majority of full-time food service workers are employed by Penn, and work in the residential dining halls ­— English House, Hill and 1920 Commons. For these 121 employees, a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union hammers out several aspects of their work benefits. These include raises, the right to appeal a layoff, sick days and vacation time.

But 109 full-time employees in Hillel’s dining hall, the school cafes and Houston Market work for Bon Appétit, an outside company contracted by the University for management and food services. Part-time food service employees in all locations are also employed by Bon Appétit.

As such, they do not participate in the collective bargaining agreement — an agreement between Penn and AFSCME — and do not receive the same benefits.

Theirs are determined separately by Bon Appétit, Marie Witt, the vice president for Business Services, said in an interview before the campaign came out publicly.

However, Penn does have a voice in the bargain.

“We take a collaborative approach in our hiring practices at Penn,” said Powell. She added that the agreements are “confidential.”

Bon Appétit employees at other universities have decided to unionize in the past. In 2002, Bon Appétit employees at Stanford University unionized with the SEIU Local 715 office to receive the same wage as the university employees. Earlier this month, Bon Appetit workers at California’s University of Laverne joined a chapter of Unite Here.

SLAP will hold a rally in support of the dining hall workers Thursday on College Green at 11:45 a.m.

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