By Brandon Addeo and Kaye Burnet | The Duquesne Duke
More than 50 Duquesne and University of Pittsburgh food workers gathered on Academic Walk near Rooney Field Wednesday afternoon, holding signs and shouting slogans, calling for faster contract negotiations and benefit protections.
The workers, members of service worker union 32BJ SEIU, are in the middle of contract negotiations with Parkhurst Dining, the company hired by Duquesne in 2013 to manage its food services. The workers’ current contract expires at the end of February, according to 32BJ SEIU District Director Sam Williamson, and they want higher wages, job security, and a guarantee that they will keep their health benefits.
The rally included 32BJ SEIU food workers from Pitt — employed by food service corporation Sodexo — who are also in the middle of negotiations.
“We unite the food service workers from the two biggest campuses in the city to say these are good jobs and these jobs are here to stay,” Williamson told the crowd on Academic Walk. “We announce our intentions and continue to bargain in good faith and negotiate from now until the end of the month, or beyond if necessary, and expect to reach agreements with both of these employers that do exactly that.”
Both Williamson and representatives from Parkhurst seemed confident that the two parties will soon be able to come to an agreement soon.
Parkhurst spokeswoman Becky McArdle wrote in an email to The Duke, “We care about our employees and have been bargaining in good faith with the Union. We fully expect that we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.”
Marla Blunt, a food services worker at Duquesne, recently sat on a wage review committee in the Pittsburgh city council, which examined the wages of hospital and food service workers and sought to “uplift” the city and provide workers with a “living wage.”
“Today we stand united to maintain a wage standard that is set on Duquesne University at $16 [an hour], and to serve the students and faculty at a high standard,” Blunt told the union members. “When you stand in solidarity, it makes a difference. We stand today united to let them know we got one fight, we have one union.”
Duquesne spokeswoman Rose Ravasio clarified that the university is not involved in the negotiations, since the workers are employed by Parkhurst. Williamson said Duquesne has set a great example of a “living wage” with the university’s $16 minimum wage, and he wants Parkhurst to adopt a similar policy. Full-time Parkhurst employees currently earn an average of $15 per hour.
Debbie Byerly has worked in food service at Duquesne for 41 years — since she was 14 years old. Known to students as “Miss Debbie,” Byerly currently works in the Hogan Dining Hall every morning.
“There have been a lot of people here for a lot of years, 40 years, 50 years, 25 years,” Byerly said in front of the rally. “They put their lives into this campus. This is a career for them, this isn’t just a job, this is what they do, this is what they love.”
She said Parkhurst employees should get a $16 per hour wage like the rest of Duquesne’s campus.
“We deserve that too,” Byerly said. “We’re not less, we never have been less. We are members of this campus, of this Duquesne family, and we deserve to get what we need to take care of our families.”
She said she participated in the rally because she thinks it is important to show Parkhurst how important food workers are on campus.
“It’s very important that our people are respected in their needs also and it’s very important for our employer to realize that we’re here daily, talking with the students and serving the students,” Byerly said.
She emphasized how much she and the other employees love serving students at Duquesne.
“They’re just such a joy, to see their smiles everyday and we talk and I get hugs, I get laughter,” Byerly said. “I wasn’t able to have children and I think God’s plan was because I was going to have so many here.”
Williamson said there will be a demonstration for the union workers by students at Pitt on Feb. 26.