UC Santa Barbara student dining hall workers formed the first student dining hall union within the university system and gained official union recognition from the Public Employment Relations Board last month.
Students unionized across all four campus dining halls to gather support in collecting union authorization card signatures from a minimum of 30% of workers. The current goals of the union include getting into contact with the university and beginning contract negotiations to demand better pay, safer working conditions and an end to workplace harassment.
Third-year aquatic biology major and De La Guerra Dining Commons employee Jasmine Rebollar said the union was first formed in April 2022 by a group of student workers at Ortega Dining Commons after employees were forbidden from sitting.
“Across all the dining halls, you’re not really allowed to sit while on job. So you’re constantly on your feet, and for some people, that can be a very strong physical ask. Their right to sit was essentially taken away at Ortega,” Rebollar said.
Fourth-year biology major and De La Guerra Dining Commons employee Uma Clemenceau said the poor working conditions experienced by student workers, coupled with the fast-paced and rigorous work environment, informed students of the bargaining power they have in being key university employees.
“They realized how essential their labor was. They realized, ‘Wow, without us, thousands of students wouldn’t be fed,’ and I think that they realized the power in that and were like, ‘let’s do something about this,’” Clemenceau said.
The union was formed due to a lack of benefits for part-time workers and the insufficiency of the entry wage — at $15.75 per hour. Rebollar recounted their promotion to student manager, where she experienced an increase in workload without an equitable pay raise.
“[With] the promotion of student manager, I have been essentially in charge of making sure food is stocked, making sure that people’s breaks are getting covered … And in total with the promotions, I only earn a 50 cent raise.”
Currently, there is no system for student workers to receive paid sick leave. Rebollar spoke to workers being forced to rely on their peers to cover their shifts — otherwise, they are left with no choice but to come into work, risking the health of themselves and their fellow employees.
“The expectation is if we’re sick, and you’re obviously scheduled to work, you have to find coverage and ask around your fellow co-workers. It’s like, ‘Hey, can you pick up my shift and cover it?’ And if you do have to call off you’re not really paid, and obviously, some students can’t really find coverage, so they come into work sick,” Rebollar said.
Another issue union members want addressed by the university are unsafe working conditions, including old equipment, freezing workplace conditions due to broken boilers and overheating issues in the kitchen. Second-year sociology major and Ortega Dining Commons employee Ezekiel Whiting recounted the dangerous circumstances of working on the hotline — the area around stovetops and ovens.
“I’ve worked in hotline, and obviously I’ve seen firsthand certain degraded equipment … I’ve been burned personally, working hotlines because there’s no protective barrier in between where the heating light and where somebody’s supposed to be grabbing the food,” Whiting said.
Union members are also pushing for the university to outline an effective sexual harassment policy, citing inappropriate interactions between students and full-time employed staff members.
“A lot of more female-presenting students experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. And this is just usually with either management or the full time chefs. And there really isn’t a proper system in place to deal with these issues,” Rebollar said.
The union’s most recent accomplishment was a signature drive held in order to gain support to file for official recognition from the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). The process mainly consisted of doing outreach with other student dining hall employees and recruiting people to their cause.
“We conducted shift visits; we communicated with our co-workers, over the phone or in person, in order to get them to sign a union card for recognition. And since that point, we’ve been recognized by PERB as of late last month,” Whiting said.
The union has also been in contact with the UAW Local 2865 — a union for student workers at UC schools — to gain guidance, specifically with the legal portion of their unionization.
“We reached out to them especially just because the legal stuff can be kind of daunting. And so we reached out and they were really excited to talk to us, and they’ve been really helpful,” Clemenceau said.
Clemenceau highlighted the urgency in gaining a better contract for dining hall workers due to the sheer number of student workers impacted. For many students, the dining halls are the best job option despite inadequate working conditions, according to Clemenceau.
“The dining hall is a very accessible job for students on campus. A lot of younger students, students who don’t have cars, students who maybe aren’t ready to make the jump to a job in academics or something like that,” Clemenceau said.
With the ongoing Isla Vista housing crisis and rising rent costs, the union is a natural response to many of the workers in the dining halls, according to Whiting.
“The circumstances and the environment presented around the student body, specifically with the hikes in rent, with inflation, with the cost of living, it is more than pushing us towards the union,” Whiting said. “Specifically, like, the housing crunch has kind of affected me. I wasn’t able to secure off-campus housing due to just the absolute insanity of rent prices at the current.”
Looking ahead, the union is looking to the UC to recognize their demands and begin new contract negotiations.
“It’s about making sure that the University of California recognizes us as an undergrad union. And we’re going to begin to bargain with them to create a fair contract that we, as the entirety of the student dining hall workers, come up [with] and implement and push forward,” Rebollar said.
A version of this article appeared on p.3 of the Jan. 25, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.