The Workers of UW

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The Workers
SEIU Local 925
WFSE Local 1488
UAW Local 4121
SEIU Local 1199
GCC/IBT Local 767M



Food Service Workers at the University of Washington


by Yasmine Tarhouni
 (June 2002)



How often do you catch the name pinned to the shirt of the person who serves you a plate of teriyaki in the Husky Union Building? How often do you have a conversation with the cashier at By George? For the average student or faculty member, the answer to both of those questions is “Not very often.”

The presence of food workers at the University of Washington is marked by invisibility in the realm of the “real” campus—the highly visible world of classes, office hours, faculty meetings, student organizations, guest speakers and residence hall life.  Like custodians, office staff, librarians and many other workers essential for the operation of a large university, food workers labor in an ironic juxtaposition of omnipresence and invisibility. On one hand, a glance at the student newspaper, The Daily, reveals dialogues preoccupied with student politics, local environmental issues, and life in the Greek system. Rare is the article that mentions food service or food workers. Yet students make up the majority of those served by Housing and Food Services, the University of Washington’s department for residence hall and on campus-dining whose mission is, “To provide quality food at reasonable prices to our guests in a clean, safe, attractive environment, while providing exemplary service to students, faculty, staff and visitors of the University of Washington.”[1]

If you put down the paper and take another look you’ll see that food service workers are everywhere—working in one of the 19 food outlets on campus, in the kitchens, on the frontline. The rhythm of work begins early. In the shadowy dawn of each workday – while most students are either fast asleep or pulling all-nighters in the confines of Odegaard library – parking lots all over campus begin to fill with workers arriving for their 6am shift. Battered carpools drive up behind residence halls and behind the Husky Union Building (HUB). Other workers alight from busses, crossing the dim and empty streets to start the first work of the day.

Who are these workers, how long have they been here, and how are they unionized? What are their hours? What has drawn them to the University, and, especially for those who have worked here 20 plus years, what has made them stay?

Classified food service workers at UW have been organized under Local 1488 of the Washington Federation of State Employees since 1978.[2]  Yet most people who work for Housing and Food services remain non-union. This is because only classified staff is part of the union—the rest of the workers fall into non-unionized student, hourly, or professional labor. As I began to look for the lives of the average unionized food service worker I quickly discovered that the lives of union members are intricately bound with the many other classifications of workers who toil alongside them. Only by examining both sides is it possible to understand how the union can protect some workers while seemingly undermining the livelihood of others.

I found that the vast majority of workers at HFS are not classified staff. Middle management consists of managers and manager/chefs, all of whom are non-unionized professional staff. Under the professionals is a varying amount of classified staff members, usually around 10, in the residence halls cafeterias. Then there is the large numbers of part time student and hourly workers. Student workers must work less than 20 hours per week. Hourly workers work anywhere from 5 to 40 hours per week, but under Washington State Law, must leave when their hours add up to more than 1050 within one year.

In recent years outcries against abuse of temporary workers have become louder. “Hourly” or “temporary” workers recently were limited to 1050 hours per year by the Washington State Legislature in an effort to curb practices of hiring “permatemps” or workers who toil indefinitely without benefits, insurance or union membership. The law was passed in response to several high profile lawsuits.  One such lawsuit was the one filed against Microsoft contending that it employed temporary workers in a fulltime capacity on an ongoing basis but denied them adequate compensation and benefits. Microsoft lost the long running case and was forced to pay workers back compensation and interest on benefits.  Another of these lawsuits happened in 1997 when the State of Washington settled a class-action lawsuit brought by more than 500 part-time and temporary employees. Yet another occurred in 1998 where the Labor Department sued Time-Warner, the media giant, for denying benefits to workers allegedly misclassified as temporary workers. Across the country, similar cases have attempted to address the increasing reliance on temporary workers.

Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, a collection of essays published in 1997, addresses the reliance on graduate students and adjunct (re: temporary) faculty at major institutions across the country. Striking similarities between the situation of hourly workers in the lofty academic fields and those in unskilled food service create an illuminating symmetry at both “ends” of the university job market.

In her essay “Disposable Faculty: Part-Time Exploitation as Management Strategy,” Linda Ray Pratt observes that as a “part-time” faculty member, “You are teaching six courses a year but are still called ‘part-time,’ even though full-time faculty members typically teach three courses per semester.”[3]  This situation is mirrored in the way that Housing and Food Services at the University of Washington “gets around” the 1050 rule by using part-time workers on a full-time basis for approximately four months and then letting them go, as demonstrated by profiled food service worker Arturo Sandino’s situation.

The phenomenon of hiring these workers back at the beginning of a new year, when they “get” a new set of hours is particularly devious.  "Rebecca" (not her real name), a middle-management professional employee at the University of Washington remarks, “In this way, some people have worked here for more than eight years.” The same is true for part-time faculty as Pratt discusses, “Part-time faculty can usually qualify for up to twenty-six weeks of unemployment compensation after working for the institution four months…I have known part-time faculty members who sustained themselves between appointments in just this way.” A pivotal difference of course, is that HFS hourly workers are not entitled to twenty-six weeks of compensation, and usually simply have to find another temporary job to sustain them until they can be rehired.

Pratt also discusses the despair inherent in this blatantly exploitative system in academia, “The letter of appointment will also contain the notice of termination.”[4] As "Yunis," another food service worker says, “When you sign the paper, you feel like, ‘great!’ you found a job—then they fire you.”

I interviewed seven food service workers in several different facilities at the University of Washington, three classified staff, three hourly staff and one professional. Their names have been changed for this report. The personal stories which follow are indicative only of their own experiences, and do not purport to speak for other workers on campus. From speaking with FSW workers at all levels of classification, a picture emerged of workers who span a broad array of education level, race, ethnicity, age and, due to this vast diversity, all had different hopes for the future. Nevertheless, all felt a certain amount of ambivalence about the “union” in large part because they feel that it conspires, whether consciously or not, with the money-holding academic institution and the state legislature to keep hourly workers eking out a barely livable wage with few options for the future.


Profiling the Workers[5]


I interviewed “Erika” one weekday morning as she was routinely cleaning the espresso maker at one HFS Restaurant.[6] Our conversation was intermittently interrupted by the droning of the coffee grinder and thirsty students stopping to ask for double lattes in their rush to class. Erika, a white, middle-aged single mother, begins her days early, and was already half done with her shift by 10:30 am. She typically arrived at HFS by 6am, after dropping off her young daughter at daycare. The first hour of her morning consists of set-up before the café opens at 7am and throngs of hungry students flood its small space.

A Food Service Worker Lead (FSW) Erika is in charge of “cold line.” Her area of supervision includes the drip coffees, which must be restocked, plus the sugars, straws, honeys and lids; the fresh fruit bar; the Boss Tucker sandwich bar; the scone, muffin, donut and croissant trays; a deli where sandwiches are made to order; the soup bar, the chip, cookie and dry cereal racks; the espresso bar and two cash registers. She supervises an average of five employees at any given time – all of them either student or hourly workers. As we speak, Erika is relaxed and easy going, leaning against the wall to talk to me in the absence of customers. As soon as customers walk up, however, she immediately asks them “How can I help you sir?” (Or ma’am). I was impressed and surprised by her formality and the emphasis she places on customer service.

Erika began a career in food service at a small college in Vancouver, WA where she learned to bake. While working there, a friend convinced her to submit a resume to an ad that wanted a deli/baker. She got the job, and although she was disappointed to find that it was almost all deli and no baking, she kept the job while in school. Later, she moved to Seattle and while looking for a job, applied at a grocery store "since all of my experience was in deli.” She stayed at her grocery store job for several years "for the union and the benefits,” and had a child.

At the grocery store she was in the retail clerks union, and although she never had to file a grievance, she always paid her dues. She began working at HFS two years ago, and has found that “I’m used to working straight. Here I don’t have to work so hard.” She sent her resume in on the advice of a friend and since she considered herself under-qualified; she never thought that she would get the job. Much to her surprise, she was offered the FSW lead job soon after her interview, and told her supervisor, “I don’t need to think about it, I’ll take it.” Eager to get a job with regular hours and good pay, Erika says, “I wanted a job where I knew they had a union and I would get benefits. At my old job, I had benefits, but they only paid me about eight dollars an hour. So I had to work six days a week, and that was too much.” At HFS, Erika works Sunday through Thursday, and can be home every afternoon, although “I have to go to bed really early.”

Erika considers herself a staunch union supporter, although she doesn’t go to meetings (they’re too late) and acknowledges that she doesn’t actively participate. Still, she considers the union a good thing and is grateful for the benefits and security it provides. She muses, “They can’t just fire you. There’s a whole process… you have rights. I could call my union rep.” In fact, Erika has had several phone conversations with her union representative, although she’s never met her in person and can’t remember if her name is Judy or Julie. Most recently, when Erika had to leave her job unexpectedly for emergency surgery, she called her union rep to ask a question about signing her hospital release form. “I wanted to make sure they (HFS) couldn’t just fire me…and she said ‘call me if they try to! You do have rights!’” she remembers. Erika compares her position to the hourly workers by saying, “If one of them had to have surgery, they probably would’ve lost their job. But me, I have something to come back to. “

At the Retail Clerks union, you had to take three unpaid sick days before you could begin using your paid sick days. “Here,” she says, “it’s better.” However, she feels the union is not very visible at UW, unlike her previous job at the grocery store, where the union rep would come around and “Check in on us.”

Erika also supports the union’s efforts to increase pay, although she is well aware that there is currently a freeze on wages. Still, she is not yet at the top of her scale “Unlike a lot of people here, I’m one of the newest classified workers” and still has one more raise coming. Although in theory she supports the right to strike, she says that she “Just can’t. I’m the sole supporter. One day’s pay cut hurts at the end of the month. Last year, when they were talking about going out on strike, I told them…I couldn’t, I have a daughter and I have to work, and they were fine because they understood my situation.”

Her sister works for the Seattle Times, which went on a strike last year that ended up practically breaking the union, and had a similar experience. Erika said, “She has a son and husband so…yes, she crossed the picket line…she was thinking about getting another job, but she didn’t end up doing that.”


“I dream a lot, but my other side is realistic. I like to be optimistic, but…if you can’t change anything, you gotta figure something out, you gotta do something else. There’s a way to create your own life outside of the system.”


“Kayo” is staring at me intently, with fierce dark eyes under a shock of dyed-red hair. He rips his gloves off his hands and wipes them on his dark vintage jeans and says, “Come with me.” Kayo has just finished his nightly cold line shift at HFS Restaurant, which he ends by closing the deli bar. After stocking all of the leftover meat, cheese and vegetables in freezers in the back, tossing out old bagels, wrapping up bread, sweeping the floor, and wiping down the counters, Kayo is ready to talk. His statement above is a typical indication of the balance he maintains between a confident optimism in his own abilities and his future, and the reality that he faces as a foreigner in the United States. Kayo came to Seattle from Turkey a  few years ago. After taking ESL classes for three months, he started work at the cafe as an hourly worker and has been there ever since. He averages 16-20 hours per week, and has worked “almost everything.” That includes serving food and working the grill in addition to his current cold line duties.

Kayo is a student at another college in Seattle, but because he is not at UW,  he is an hourly worker, not a student worker. His passion is media, especially music, and he says about working at HFS, “It’s not the perfect thing, I would prefer a job that I would find in music or movies, but for now it’s fine…” He found his job at HFS through another native of his country, “Yunis,” who arrived here almost four years ago. Kayo and Yunis have been friends for seven years, and Kayo will be best man at Yunis’s wedding this summer.[7]

Kayo finds the stability and freedom of his “day job” attractive, although he receives neither benefits nor any guarantee of further employment. He has also bonded with one of his managers, a fellow musician. He says the “people who work here” are the best thing about his job, although his artistic sensibilities are injured by the café’s bland and bright décor. About his working environment he says, “Yeah, I would add some art, you know, music, a little redecoration, something different from the regular cafeteria. That’s how I think—you should do things differently.”

Kayo is biding his time until he can find a “serious group of musicians” with which he can collaborate on a regular basis as a songwriter. He is also looking for another job somewhere in the music business, possibly a record shop. “It’s really hard for a foreigner to live in the United States,” he says, “My parents send me money of course, they’re paying for the school, but I have a part time job so I can pay my expenses.”

Because of the independent nature of his previous jobs – where he worked as a musician in bars and clubs – Kayo has never belonged to a union, nor does he particularly want to. Asked about his situation as an hourly worker, he says, “I don’t know about those things.” He feels his hourly wage, although “not enough” is fair for now, and doesn’t particularly feel it is important to invest time in changing the situation since he sees himself leaving this job within a year. As long as he has money from his parents as a security blanket and his dreams of music and media to sustain his hopeful outlook, he cannot conceive of depending on HFS wages for his livelihood. His view of his future, perhaps a reflection of his age, is singularly individualistic. He says he plans to stay in the United States, “Long enough to record some songs, shoot some movies, in Turkish and English together…I’m saying this like it will happen. I’m believing what I’m doing and I’m gonna work hard and get what I can.” He says that the pressure of friends’ expectations is urging him on, “They’re expecting things from me at home. That makes you more willing…when you have friends behind you expecting things from you.”

His view of unions, which he calls “social groups,” is much more guarded than his personal outlook. He says, “I believe if every individual does what they’re supposed to do, we don’t need that kind of stuff. When I look at that (unions) they’re just commercializing it, degrading it, I like to be optimistic, but it’s not gonna change…you just gotta figure something else out. I mean, I have always had this rebellious streak but…” Kayo stares at his hands, choosing his words slowly and carefully, “In Turkey there are unions on every corner. Some smarty guy or smarty girl shows up and gets the money out of these young people who are thinking they will be changing things by marching in the streets…nah.” He leans back in his chair and grins. “Nothing changes.”


“I Have to Work”


“Arturo” is an hourly worker at a different HFS facility. Like Kayo and Yunis, Arturo is an immigrant to this country. He arrived in Seattle from Mexico 10 years ago and has worked a variety of low-paying jobs in food service at places like Starbucks, World Wraps and the Crab Pot. Currently, in addition to his 28 hours per week at HFS, Arturo works 40 hours in a upscale Seattle restaurant, where he’s been cooking pasta and making pizza’s since 1994. Like Kayo, Arturo heard about the opening at HFS through a friend, “Memo,” who also works at the Seattle restaurant. Until recently, Memo made stir-fry at HFS, but he has since been asked to leave because his temporary hours have given out. Now Arturo works the stir-fry, in addition to making pizzas and serving food in the line. 

When Arturo started working at HFS his hours were Fridays through Sundays, but after a month they were inexplicably cut to Friday nights and Saturday mornings. After working this shift for two months, and asking for more hours, management restored his Friday through Sunday shift. Now Arturo works every weekday evening from 4-8pm, plus an eight-hour shift on Saturdays. Recently management has told Arturo that his hours are up and he will have to leave by June 14th. However, he’s been told that if he leaves a number where he can be reached, they will call him in September and he will most likely be able to come back to work.

The reason he works so much is that he is trying to support his mother, who is home in Mexico.  He says, “I have to work…I keep my money and send it to Mexico.”


“I’ve seen it all and I know…we all have to work so we should get along.”

          “Sandi” is the oldest employee at her HFS restaurant. She has worked there for fourteen years and has spent a total of 25 years working at the University. For the past fourteen years she has been a Food Service Lead, and like Erika, she starts her job at 6am. She does “Whatever's needed,” but has a general routine where she stocks the salad bar and fills fruit containers. She doesn’t officially supervise anyone, but says she is constantly giving advice to the students and hourly staff or showing them where things are. She says, “I’ve been here longer, so I can show them how to do something faster.” She plans to retire in the near future, perhaps as soon as two years, and likes the work at HFS because she likes the independent nature of the job.  Before working at HFS, Sandi worked at another residence hall on campus, and previous to that she worked in a sorority kitchen on Greek row.

          The food service workers were not yet organized when Sandi joined the union, so joining wasn’t mandatory but she says chose to do so anyway because “There was such a strong anti-labor feeling at that time…I felt there had to be some collective action.” Sandi says that when she first began working, in the 1960’s, she was wary of the unions. Even when she came to work at UW in 1977, she initially stayed away from them. However, after studying labor history on her own, and learning more about the plight of early garment workers who worked long hours in terrible conditions, Sandi became more sympathetic to the local, and decided she would do whatever is necessary to raise living conditions. Another event that occurred in the late seventies further swayed her to the union cause.  A close friend of hers had a brother who worked in a mine in Idaho. At the time his mine was not unionized, and when he lost his eye in a mining accident, he also lost his job without compensation. Sandi says that after that, she decided she would support strikes on campus for better working conditions and benefits.

          Thirteen years ago, Sandi did participate in a protest for better treatment, although she didn’t actually have to strike since it was her day off.  She remembers, “We all went down to the president’s office, you know. There was one girl there who could speak really well, and she had one of those bullhorns. She yelled up at the windows, ‘this is a castle, and there sits the king!!’” Sandi smiled at the recollection of this event and seemed to remember it as exciting and without regret. Asked if a goal was accomplished, she said she didn’t know exactly what it was about at the time, but felt she should show solidarity with her fellow workers anyway.

Although Sandi is sympathetic to the poor situation of many hourly workers, she sees their large numbers as weakening the union staff.  She states, “We rely on other unions (at UW) to support us…It’s not a solid union.” She realizes that hourly workers do not have the job security that she has, but feels that if the union could figure out a way to incorporate their numbers, it would make Local 1488 more powerful.

          Sandi gets along fairly well with her supervisors, and says the manager, who has been there for seven years, has mellowed out. She says she has no problem going to him if she has a complaint. Sandi’s attitude is one of compromise.  She says, “They have a responsibility and so do we.” She sees it as both the employer and the employee’s job to show each other respect and compromise.

 She says, “I think the relationship should be happier (between employees and middle management) they’re job providers, it’s true, but we’re helping them—without us they couldn’t do nothing. How else do they run a business? They have to borrow from the public, and use the public, and we are the public.”


“If I take a job, I keep it, I come to work.”


“What do you want?!” "Alfred" bllows at me without looking up from the pan where he is swiftly breading chicken breasts. Five more pans, already filled, are lined up on the counter in the kitchen. Alfred is “Cook One” and he cooks dinner every night at an HFS facility, beginning at 11am and ending about 7:30pm. When he comes in at 11:00, he goes about his routine (“I only have a routine for the first hour and half”), filling pasta bins, getting the many utensils he will need for the next eight hours, yelling at the dish room staff if the utensils are not clean, and pulling out the food he will begin to prep. Periodically he takes long strides around the breadth of the kitchen, his 6' 4" frame slightly hunched over at the waist, long legs carrying him swiftly around as he barks orders and calls out workers names. He is in charge of supervising the majority of the hourly staff, which includes all the kitchen workers and many of the frontline food servers and back room food “preppers.” He gave me the impression that he’s had quite a few conflicts with people he supervises, but says he has “Learned to allow for peoples’ challenges.” Alfred also feels that he is hurt by the number of hourly staff working at HFS, complaining that most of them don’t stay long enough for him to teach them enough to be useful in the kitchen. He says hiring a more stable prep staff is the number one thing he would like to change about his job.

Alfred describes himself as “A fifth generation cook…my family’s been here since the Constitution.” He says he’s been cooking for more than 25 years, over half his life, although he’s worked in a wide variety of venues, including daycares and other universities across the country. He has also worked on fishing boats in Alaska, on a yacht in San Francisco, and owned a catering company. In the early 90’s, he owned a jazz club in Portland but said “I don’t like Jazz…I just saw it as a chance to play with food.” That ability to play with food is Alfred’s favorite pastime, as well as his job. He’s been at HFS for almost two years, and enjoys the amount of autonomy he has, but sees plenty of room for improvement. “They set the menu…but let’s just say I use my own judgment on some things,” he says.  He appreciates the benefits of being one of the few classified staff at HFS, such as his health insurance and relatively high wages. He points out, “There’s an A-K scale. Most people get hired in at ‘A’ but I was hired at ‘K.’” Because he was hired at the top of his pay scale, Alfred receives only cost-of-living raises.

          He dislikes what he calls the “bureaucracy” of HFS, saying, “I wasn’t schooled in it,” and would like a freer hand to determine what kind of food to make and how much. He says that middle management, which sets the menu, all too often has an attitude of, “It’s our way or the highway,” Alfred says, “I would like it to be more flexible.”        

Alfred, like Kayo, is not a strong supporter of unions, although unlike many of the other staff members, he has belonged to one in nearly all of his previous jobs. “The Northwest is a union region…if you live here, you gotta be in one," he says. When he worked on fishing boats, he belonged to a Maritime union, and at the Kingdome he belonged to Local 8, which he didn’t like. Alfred says his union rep is very accessible, although he couldn’t remember his name, and hollered across the kitchen to another worker, “Hey what’s the union guy? What’s his name?”  After a few minutes it was determined that his name is Joe, although Alfred said he never knew his last name and doesn’t have much to do with him. 

The extent of Alfred’s participation in the union is paying his dues, and he says he wouldn’t support a union strike and didn’t join the one-day strike last year. His attitude is that striking is against his personal integrity. “If I take a job, I keep it, I come to work," he asserts.  Alfred said that in the event of a strike, he would have no problem crossing a picket line, and in fact has done so before. People tried to give him a hard time, he says he “Didn’t stand for it,” and the picketers backed off.

          He doesn’t resent the money he pays to the union, although he doesn’t know what it’s used for and feels that the union is too slow to handle grievances. In his two years at HFS, he’s had a number of grievances, mostly with management, but says he found it’s better to “Handle it myself.” He feels the union should work on getting him better medical and dental benefits, and should have a better and more defined merit system. Alfred feels that his wages should not stop at “K” but should be dependent at least partly on experience and customer satisfaction.


“I’m a good worker. People who say, ‘I couldn’t find a job’ are lazy.”


Alfred’s attitude that merit should count for more was echoed by Yunis, a Turkish worker who has worked for HFS for three and half years. Previously he worked at the Subway at the Hub, and at another residence hall. Yunis is an hourly worker who currently works 25 hours a week, about five hours a day, during dinner. His job for the past year has been a made-to-order bar concept that Yunis proposed to management himself. The work is labor intensive, hot and sweaty. As I interview him, I notice several blisters on his hands, and ask if those are souvenirs of HFS, “Of course,” he grins.

Like Kayo, Yunis is from Turkey. However, Yunis is not a student, and says he “Doesn’t like school.” When he first came to Seattle, he went to North Seattle Community College for two years before dropping out. Recently, Yunis married a student worker at HFS, and they plan to have a formal wedding this summer. His wife will graduate from the University of Washington at the end of next year, but until then Yunis says, “My priority is to make as much money as I can so I can support her.”

Yunis’s added responsibilities prompted him to apply for classified status six months ago. He says HFS sent an advertisement around saying what they were looking for, and his manager told him he should think about applying. “So I put together my resume and sent it downstairs (to Human Resources),” he says.  His resume was one of three or four chosen by HR to send around campus to managers who might be interested in hiring. However, no one on campus had an opening for a classified employee.

“One of the most difficult things about the system is that when you find someone great you don’t have the opportunity to hire them,” says Rebecca, a manager/chef at another HFS facility. Because she is part of the professional staff, she does not belong to the union either. Like Yunis, she can be fired without cause. To her though, this is neither strange nor unfair.

She says, “I worked in the private sector before this…a lot of restaurants. In the private sector, if you don’t perform, they kick you out! That was something I had to get used to here, that they (the classified staff) couldn't just be fired. You have to jump through about 15 hoops with the union first.”  Because it is so hard to fire classifieds, Rebecca says there is enormous pressure on management to hire someone who is right for the job saying, “Because they’re going to be here forever…especially when the economy’s not doing so well, this place looks pretty secure.”

Rebecca says she has, “Been on both sides of the union.” She worked for a private company for about five years doing phone sales and says, “I hated my job but I managed to work there for 5 years. I had a 20% absenteeism rate…that means that every fifth day I was calling in sick.” She was never fired because and says “They had to issue warnings first, and as soon as they gave me a warning…I would find another way to keep myself amused.” She laughs, “I’ve matured a bit since then.” She feels that unions often exist only to protect lazy workers. Without the union, she says, “You either perform or you leave.”

Yunis has decided to quit HFS by the end of spring quarter. This decision is partly because he was unable to reach classified status and partly because his time as an hourly worker has “run out.” By the time he quits, he will have only 77 more hours that he is able to work before he reaches a limit of 850 per year. He has been told that the University has had to “freeze the hiring” because first the Hub and then McMahon dining hall were closed, and there was an abundance of classified workers. “I don’t know, I don’t even care anymore," he says.  His bitterness was evident when I asked if I could use his real name for this project.  “Of course! It’s the truth, why should I be ashamed to use my name?” When I insinuated that perhaps using his name would have repercussions for other staff who wished to remain protected, since they would not be “quitting,” Yunis exploded, “I am not quitting either! I’m losing my job! Is there some kind of difference?”

Previously, the Washington State statute was vague on what constituted a temporary employee. Now, under the 1050 rule, employers must either fire workers or make the decision to hire them. Although the law was passed to prevent hourly worker abuse, according to Rebecca it merely creates another way for employers to exploit them. At HFS, she says, management actually stops employees (fires them) at 850 hours, to make sure that they do not accidentally cross the line over into classified staff, something that can happen if an hourly worker is employed for more than 1050 hours in one year. When a manager lets that happens, she says, he’s the one who gets fired. Instead, most hourly workers at HFS work full time just like regular employees, and use up their allowed hours in approximately five months. After that they’re told to leave, but with a verbal understanding that they can come back at the start of the next year, when they get a whole new set of hours. In this way she says, “Some people have worked here for more than eight years…”

Yunis has no intention of become one of these workers. He has been told that if he comes back in September he can have his hourly job again, but he scorns the idea of working for HFS without classified status. Yunis sees the minimum on hours and the union protection given to classified workers as combining to thoroughly exploit the hourly worker. “It works for them—the people with the money. Classified are set. Students don’t care. It’s the hourly workers who get screwed," he says.

He sees classified staff, like Sandi and Erika, as workers who are so securely protected by the union that they become lazy and ineffectual at their jobs. When talking to him, his barely controlled frustration is evident, as he struggles to find the words. “I’m not trying to sound like I’m cocky…but I could do the work of these people and more…I’m a good worker and I could do this better,” he asserts. Although hourly workers are made aware of their precarious status when they are hired, Yunis says workers still feel robbed and dismayed when they are suddenly let go, “When you sign the paper, you feel like, ‘great!’ you found a job—then they fire you.”

Yunis’s feelings about the union are mixed. On the one hand he supports it by saying, “I don’t look at unions bad, I never have. Unions protect the employee from the manager, that’s the way I see it.” When he lived in Turkey, he worked at a Burger King and belonged to a union. “I paid my money, but I never need to have business (with the union.)” On the other hand, Yunis shares Rebecca’s view that unions protect lazy workers, particularly those he sees as “hogging” the few, and precious classified jobs at HFS.

 “If you’re a good worker, you don’t need a union, because the boss won’t get you. I’m a good worker, so the union is good for me because it protects me…but I could get another job.  If you’re lazy the union protects your job. People who say ‘I couldn’t find a job’ are lazy. They’re the ones who need help,” he says.  Rebecca also sees burnout and laziness among classified workers, saying, “How do you manage someone who’s been here for 20 years?” The rate of turnover among management is much higher than that of classified, in part because professionals are not unionized. “They see us come and go…it’s very difficult,” she says. Her dismal view of the union seems to be confirmed by an experience a good friend and former colleague at the company she once worked for. Her friend was a union member when the company went on strike last year. Rebecca’s friend supported the strike and stayed away from work. However, by the time she came back to work, the union effectively was broken, and less than 50 employees were active union members. Those that were union members, like Rebecca’s friend, had been reassigned and put in an environment with a new team of workers and new supervisors. Her friend was also given extraordinary sales expectations to “keep her on her toes” and insure that she never fulfilled her job. Once the union was gone, Rebecca says, the environment was so oppressive that her friend ended up leaving after being lectured for not acknowledging a former scab in the hallway. Paradoxically, Rebecca seems to hold the union responsible for this, perhaps for perpetuating an unsuccessful strike.

A common thread running through the words of the food workers, whether classified, professional or hourly, was their overall ambivalence about the effectiveness of unions as a tool to improve the livelihood of workers. All of the people I interviewed, whether they came down in the end as pro- or anti-union, shared mixed feelings and confusions about the purpose and duty of a union in a workplace dominated by non-classified staff.       

Another disturbing element I found was that all of the classified workers I spoke to had been hired from “outside,” none had worked their way up from an hourly status, with the exception of Sandi, who started working for the University before there was a union. As Linda Ray Pratt describes, the situation is similar for part-time faculty, “The jobs hardly ever convert to regular tenure-track lines.”[8] So the plight of temporary workers seems to be not much alleviated by the 1050 rule despite the fact that in the lawsuits that prompted the rule, the defendant employers were encouraged to hire part-time employees as full after they had completed a certain amount of hours. As Yunis’ situation shows, it is very difficult to “work up” no matter how skilled or talented you are. “(Workers) are demoralized when performance goes largely unnoticed or faithful service over time does not merit stability of appointment...”[9]

Linda Ray Pratt alludes to the huge profit gained by the institution by not having to pay benefits to temporary workers. “First, the profit to the institution is outrageously advantageous.”[10] Rebecca, the middle-management professional, echoed this sentiment that the hourly situation among food service workers is economically driven by saying, “Sometimes benefits are 25% of the hourly wage on top of them... so if someone earns 10 dollars an hour, they really have to pay them $12.50…and they just can’t afford it.”

As a deliberate management strategy the exploitation of temporary workers is seemingly seen as unfortunate but necessary, in times when higher education receives less and less support at the state level. However, an attitude that seems to imply, “We don’t have the money to offer a living wage” to any but classified employees belies the real truth of simple prioritizing that is at the heart of hourly exploitation.

In her essay, Pratt refers to a number of tenured faculty who are gradually becoming aware and concerned about the large numbers of part-timers on campus and says, “Growing numbers of them are troubled because the link between increased use of part-time faculty and administrative redesign of faculty roles is more apparent now that post-tenure review is an open strategy.” It is highly probable that as Pratt implies, tenured faculty may sit up and take notice of the plight of part-time staff only when their own security is threatened by the same winds of academic restructuring. However, it is important that they and the rest of the campus community, including undergraduate students, begin to cultivate an awareness of this situation now. As members of the university who are literally served by the exploitation of food workers, students should be troubled by what is deemed a necessary allocation of funds that results in only a select “elite” of workers who are organized into unions. The benefits of job security, retirement accruement and a livable wage should be the standard on all college campuses, both for those in the academic and laboring “class.”

Furthermore, there is a direct link between undergraduate students and future academic jobs, while an even more immediate link exists in the form of the many of us who now hold and will continue to rely on entry-level, low wage food service jobs in order to pay for that academic training.


© Yasmine Tarhouni 2002




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[3] pp 268.  Pratt, Linda Ray, “Disposable Faculty:  Part-time Exploitation as Management Strategy.” Will Teach For Food: Academic Labor in Crisis Ed. Cary Nelson. MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 264-277.

[4] Ibid.  pp. 268

[5] Workers who speak of “the union,” in the following interviews refer to Local 1488 of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

[6] Names of people and places have been changed in order to protect the identity and jobs of those interviewed.

[7] Some personal information has been altered to protect the identities of the workers.

[8] Pratt, pp 264.

[9] Ibid., pp. 267.

[10] Ibid., pp. 269.

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These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.