A nationwide rail strike is looming over the holidays and ongoing strikes by workers in more industries continue across the country, another strike is looming closer to home in Central Florida.
Last week, more than 200 food service workers at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida voted unanimously to authorize a strike that could take place as early as December 1.
The vote comes amid ongoing contract negotiations between UNITE HERE Local 737, the union representing dishwashers, cooks, concessionaires and other food service workers at the Orange County Convention Center, and Sodexo, the global convention facility contracting company.
“The results were unmistakable,” Jeremy Haicken, president of UNITE HERE Local 737, said during a Monday press conference with union leaders from across the country. “Two hundred and thirty-five voted to authorize the strike. Zero voted against authorizing the strike.”
Voter turnout was 84% among full-time unionized workers, helped by more than 130 on-call workers.
According to Local 737, which represents thousands of hospitality and tourism workers in Central Florida, the region’s tourism industry hasn’t seen a strike in more than 20 years. But that could change as early as Dec. 1, the day after the union’s contract with Sodexo is set to expire.
“I support the strike because I need more money in my pocket to pay my bills when the cost of living has gone up so much,” said Jackeline Ponce, a retail and concessions worker at the Orange County Convention Center, which hosts various events and trade shows. which attract more than 1.5 million visitors to the region every year. It is the third largest convention center in the United States.
But Ponce, an employee for nine years and a member of Local 737’s bargaining committee, said it’s hard to make ends meet on her current wages. “I struggle with food, I struggle with gas, I struggle with rent because I only make $13.60 an hour.
While the tourism industry, the heart of Central Florida’s economy, has rebounded after taking a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, its workers are among the lowest paid in the region. For example, Sodexo’s minimum wage for their workers at the Orange County Convention Center is currently $13 an hour for on-call workers and $13.50 for full-time workers.
According to MIT’s Wage Calculator, that’s far below what it takes to live in Orange County, home of the so-called ‘Most Magical Place on Earth.’
Average rents in Orange County are up 22% over last year. And a new union report shows many of those employed by Central Florida’s major tourism employers, including Sodexo and Walt Disney World, are struggling to make ends meet.
Of the 2,415 watchmakers surveyed, 69% said they didn’t have money to pay their rent or mortgage in the past year, while 62% said they had less than $100 in savings.
Union President Jeremy Haicken told WMNF that they are asking Sodexo to give workers an $18 minimum wage this year or a $3 raise — whichever is higher, because some Sodexo workers are currently making more while others are making less.
They had been negotiating a new contract with Sodexo since August, and Haicken said the company not only refused to accept the union’s economic proposal, but failed to come up with its own proposal for wages, pension benefits or health insurance. .
“Convention center workers like these have been really hit hard by the pandemic and all too often have had to bear the brunt of the many event cancellations that have occurred,” Haicken said Monday. “Our members’ families depend on these jobs, and it’s imperative that Sodexo does better so Central Florida families don’t have to go without basic necessities.”
Yet while their core employees struggle with high inflation and rising rents, the same financial woes are not reflected in Sodexo’s earnings. Sodexo, a global food services and facilities management company based in France, has announced a 21% increase in revenue for fiscal year 2022 – total revenue of roughly €21 billion. While that’s a bit lower than they were before COVID-19, their fourth-quarter revenue this year is back to pre-pandemic levels.
When reached for comment on the vote to authorize a strike by Orange County employees, a Sodexo spokesman said the vote “is an expected part of the CBA. [collective bargaining agreement] the process of preparing the negotiations for Unite Here.’
“Accordingly, we continue to engage in good faith during the ongoing CBA negotiations in a sincere effort to reach a fair and competitive set of long-term agreements in a timely manner,” the spokesperson added. “Negotiations are scheduled in the coming weeks and we look forward to continuing to offer attractive wages and conditions while ensuring our clients and consumers remain competitive.”
But those bargaining meetings with Sodexo aren’t scheduled until Dec. 13 and 14 — two weeks after workers could go on strike, according to the union.
“We’re hoping there won’t have to be a strike,” Haicken said at a news conference Monday. “We will continue to negotiate with Sodexo and hope to reverse the trend towards a reasonable and substantial wage increase, win a dignified retirement and remedy other indignities. Unbelievable things like how emergency workers have to pay for their own uniforms just to go to work.”
Sodexo did not respond to WMNF’s inquiry regarding this uniform claim, nor did it respond to questions about what Sodexo offered their workers during contract negotiations with Local 737. In addition to the wage increase, the union’s proposal also includes a better pension plan for workers and better scheduling.
And food service workers in Orange County are not alone in their fight. UNITE HERE announced that union members at the Las Vegas Convention Center, represented by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, will also vote soon on whether to strike, while UNITE HERE locals representing workers at convention centers in Sacramento, Detroit and New Orleans warned of impending labor disputes over salaries and working conditions. All three are pending negotiation.
“Our members are ready for change,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23, which represents Sodexo workers at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. “And we know our members are inspired by their union brethren in Orlando and Las Vegas in voting on the strikes that are underway.”