The Student Dining Labor Union at UC Santa Barbara publicly launched its campaign today to unionize student employees across all four campus dining commons, demanding better pay, working conditions and treatment.

The Ortega Commons offers a continuous grab and go meal service for students on weekdays. Mark Alfred / Daily Nexus

UCSB Residential Dining operates four dining commons — Carrillo, De La Guerra, Ortega and Portola — that serve over two million meals a year and employ a part-time student staff of under 500. 

The Nexus spoke to five Student Dining Labor Union (SDLU) organizers, including second-year sociology and history of public policy double major and lead organizer Cole McCarthy and second-year financial math and statistics and data science double major Christopher Pang. The other students spoke on condition of anonymity.

The push for unionization quietly began in April 2022 with the meeting of a small cohort of Ortega Dining Commons workers. McCarthy said the effort “developed rapid support” and expanded to the other three dining halls. 

McCarthy said organizers used the past year to gauge community interest, receive support and legal advice from local union chapters and establish a plan of action to file for unionization. Nearly 100 dining hall student staff members became involved in private union discussions over the past year, according to him.

SDLU is seeking “fair wages, adequate working conditions, protection from harassment and more through unionization,” the group wrote in a May 18 Instagram post @sdlu_ucsb.

“We work everyday to provide students with meals and keep the university running smoothly, and we deserve fair treatment as a result,” SDLU said in a statement to the Nexus.

Each student emphasized low pay and limited potential for raises, despite performing physically demanding labor, as a primary concern. Hourly wages start at $15.75 and cap at $16 unless students hold a manager position, according to the employees.

“There’s a lot of on-campus jobs that start at higher than that and are not as physically taxing,” a Carrillo employee said. “Something that a lot of us struggle with is how much the work strains us throughout the shifts and the lack of accommodation that we tend to get for it.”

The issue of wages extends to difficulties with scheduling and the lack of a differential pay rate for overtime hours. Pang said he worked dozens of shifts longer than eight hours and the occasional 12-hour shift, neither of which provided an overtime differential pay rate.

“The fact that we still make 25 cents over minimum wage is pretty absurd, especially how relative to their total workforce, it’s not a lot. It wouldn’t take that much to give us a decent living wage,” McCarthy said.

An Ortega employee further explained that students have been expected to fulfill a higher volume of takeout orders — with management increasing the amount from seven orders every two minutes to 20 orders — with no additional benefits or compensation.

“We spend more time constantly working trying to fill orders. There’s not a moment to rest,” they said. “The entire time we haven’t gotten any kind of raise for this increased amount of work that we’re doing, which also means that the university is making more money from the dining halls because they’re filling out more orders, but our pay stays the same.”

Students cited personal and coworker complaints of foot, back and wrist pain and repetitive stress injuries from the constant physical motions of running, lifting items and crouching to complete tasks.

The Carrillo employee said that managers have a “lack of consideration for the wellbeing” of their employees, working them to the point of exhaustion.

“​​There was one time last week where I was doing four people’s jobs because not a lot of people were coming into work,” she said. “I feel like I wasn’t even accommodated; I didn’t get to finish my break.”

SDLU is looking to demand improvements to hourly wages, overtime pay, work breaks, sick leave benefits and scheduling, according to internal meeting notes dated March 5.

Dining hall employees are fully responsible for finding covers for their shifts in the case of illness or the need for personal time off — a point of stress for many workers.

“There is full responsibility on the students to find the cover,” Pang said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sick. Even if someone has COVID, they’ll ask you to find the cover.”

During the pandemic, managers expected dining hall employees to find a person to cover their shift if they tested positive and needed to isolate or quarantine, according to students. McCarthy added that managers sometimes “encouraged [them] to come in anyways” if sick.

Another key demand for SDLU relates to improvements to substandard working conditions. The issue stems from the UC Regents’ legal designation as a “public trust,” exempting it from labor statutes regulating the wages and benefits of California public employees.

State regulation Order No. 4 governing minimum wages, overtime pay, rest periods, sick leave, workplace temperature and other worker benefits and protections does not apply to the UC Regents. The California Court of Appeal upheld this exemption in its 2021 ruling Gomez v. Regents of the University of California.

Inadequate ventilation and temperature control plagues all four of the dining commons, and dehydration and passing out due to extreme heat is a recurring experience among workers, according to employees.

“Most of the time, you don’t have AC. They’ll have the heater on, on already hot days while you’re working in the kitchen, which is itself hot,” the Ortega employee said. “There are people who have passed out during work, especially when you’re working in the dish room because it is extremely hot there.”

They said the boiler for Ortega did not work for about six months, and students were “absolutely freezing” while working during winter quarter.

“There’s just absolutely no regulation of the environment to where it is bearable to work in,” they said.

Pang said that the temperature control was broken for a year and a half at Ortega, and the room where hot entrees are packed for take out lacks adequate ventilation.

“It gets extremely hot back there because there’s almost no ventilation,” Pang said. “Very recently, they’ve finally installed this little fan on the top corner that does help a little bit but does very little in regards to actually getting the hot air out, and so people back there are sweating. They’re trying to try and just survive without melting.”

Due to the UC Regents’ exemption from Order No. 4, dining hall workers also “do not have the right to sit down at any point during work,” the Ortega employee said.

“As soon as a manager comes around, everyone gets up because if they catch you doing that, then you’ll get in trouble,” they said.

Order No. 4 states that “All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats,” and that when the nature of work requires the employee to stand, seats should be placed close by the work area for employees to use, “when it does not interfere with the performance of their duties.”

McCarthy said that the issue became “contentious” between workers and managers after many instances where students were denied seating at or near their workstation.

“I think it just lends to the way in which our managers tend to view us as tools to get things done rather than as people with needs,” they said.

Pang said that there are rampant health issues across all of the dining halls, from relaxed handwashing policies and unclean surfaces to unsanitary handling and preparing of food.

“The health inspectors went to all the dining halls, and then we, from what I understand, just failed at Ortega and we had a week to desperately clean up the area,” Pang said.

Students also said that inappropriate behavior and harassment is a known, prevalent problem that has gone unaddressed by the university.

“We can experience harassment from management,” McCarthy said. “Most of our relationships with the the full-time chefs there are pretty good, but many of us have experienced sexual harassment from the chefs.”

Pang said that rather than the university actively addressing the problem by terminating perpetrators of sexual harassment, he was directed as a student manager to reassign female-presenting employees from certain positions, such as janitorial staff.

“I’ve been implicitly asked to only send male-presenting people to work in that position. ‘Just don’t send female-presenting people,’” Pang said.

McCarthy expressed his frustration over the university’s inaction.

“It often makes those male-presenting people feel targeted toward those positions because it’s not typically a fun position to be in, but it also speaks to the question of, why can’t they just stop the harassment? Why can’t they deal with the harassment? They know it exists. They have spoken on it, they know it exists,” he said.

McCarthy noted that students working in residential dining predominantly come from low-income backgrounds and take on the burden to afford college expenses and the high cost of living on campus and in Isla Vista.

“A lot of the people who are working there are not well-off by any means,” McCarthy said. “A lot of these people are forced to work alongside their schooling to pay for tuition, to pay for housing and so on, and I think it would be a testament to the university’s commitment to care for those people if they were to treat them fairly and make up for what they have to lose by having to do this job in the first place.”

The Ortega employee said they work around 16 hours a week to afford high rent costs in I.V. and other basic expenses. They rely on EBT for groceries and previously lived off dining hall food and Associated Students Food Bank resources.

“I know that I am definitely not unique in this situation,” they said. “There are a lot of us who are working, trying to survive and keep up with the cost of living, and it’s negatively impacting our school performance and our prospects after school.”

SDLU is planning its first rally for May 24 at 1 p.m. by the Arbor to generate publicity of the dining commons’ substandard working conditions and launch its campaign for unionization. 

“We hope to inspire autonomy and democratic values within both our workplace and in others across campus through our efforts,” SDLU said in a statement to the Nexus. “Please fight alongside us as we push to make conditions on campus more livable.”

McCarthy said the campaign will serve as a “litmus test” for the public’s support and hopes to file as a union with the California Public Employment Relations Board within the next school year. He added that SDLU anticipates pushback from the university.

“They are almost certainly going to contest our unionization effort whenever we do file,” McCarthy said. “They likely will refuse to recognize our efforts for a prolonged period of time, in which case we are at the ready to engage in whatever legal battle we need in order to recognize ourselves, both legal and on the ground.”


Nisha Malley
Nisha Malley (she/her/hers) is the County News Editor for the 2022-23 school year. Previously, Malley was an Assistant News Editor for the 2021-22 school year. She can be reached at