We deserve better: Hotel workers talking union 

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click to enlarge Sarah Lyons left a job as a barista at IUPUI to work full time with Unite Here. - MARK LEE
  • Sarah Lyons left a job as a barista at IUPUI to work full time with Unite Here.
  • Mark Lee

R-E-S-P-E-C-T at IUPUI

In early 2010, Sarah Lyons began working as a barista at Caribou Coffee on the second floor of the IUPUI Campus Center. Like the other 70 people preparing and serving food and drinks at Campus Center outlets like Chick-fil-A, Spotz Grille, and Wild Greens, Lyons' real employer was neither the branded restaurants nor IUPUI. Instead, the employees work for Chartwells Dining Services, a division of Compass Group North America.

At first, Lyons liked the job. As a recent college graduate, Lyons enjoyed getting to know professors and students who were regular customers, and she had real admiration for her more experienced coworkers. But it was a struggle to get by on an $8 per hour salary, and when Lyons' car broke down, she could not afford to fix it. Lyons and others, including James Meyers, a former fast-food restaurant manager now working at Chartwells, felt managers did not always treat workers with respect. Lyons and Meyers saw that some of their colleagues were working a two-person job alone. The health insurance Chartwells offered for the employees' families was so expensive that almost no one could afford to enroll. Lyons had been a women's rights activist in college, and she was alarmed at how readily she was acquiescing in unfair treatment. "I just took it," she says. "I hated what I was becoming. I finally concluded, 'This is crazy. We deserve better.'"

Lyons, Meyers, and other Chartwells employees at IUPUI began to talk. Soon, they started working with an organizer for Unite Here. In addition to leading the hotel workers campaign, Unite Here had recently organized food service workers at the Indianapolis International Airport, most of whom are now represented by the union. "I was scared at first," Lyons admits. "But being a part of a team got me past that." Within just a few months, about three-quarters of the Chartwells employees signed cards indicating their desire to form a union. In September of 2011, a delegation of employees, accompanied by several IUPUI professors and students, presented themselves in the Chartwells manager's office and demanded that their union be recognized.

A week later, Chartwells agreed to recognize the union, and bargaining began. The eventual 35-page contract included pay raises, a substantial reduction in employees' health insurance premiums, and the recognition of seniority in promotions and job changes. Meyers and Delbert "Doc" Tardy became shop stewards and now meet regularly with Chartwells managementto discuss workplace issues. Soon after the contract was approved, Lyons left the coffee shop to work with Unite Here organizing the hotel workers. "The way Chartwells works with their employees should be an example for the hotels here in town," she says. "It is a team approach now."

When she recently returned to the Campus Center for a visit, Lyons was greeted with a series of hugs and smiles from her former colleagues. "I am still amazed by what was accomplished here," she says. "People are so much happier, and I saw workers like James (Meyers) become real leaders in our community." In fact, Meyers recently took a leave of absence from Chartwells to help Unite Here try to organize other local food service workers to follow the unionized path of the IUPUI and airport workers.

Meyers comes over to greet Lyons, and the two reminisce about the day they first walked into the Chartwells office to announce they had formed a union.Meyers smiles at the memory. "I felt like I had won a million dollars," he says. "I got to tell the manager, 'You are the boss, I understand that. But I am a man, too, and we can respect each other.'"

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