Megan Zerez
Mercury Staff

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since its original publication.

After a months-long organizing effort, certain Chartwells workers will be able to participate in a May 2 election to determine whether they want to be represented in collective bargaining by local chapter 1000 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Student and temporary workers will not be able to participate in the election, said Anthony Elmo, a spokesperson for UFCW.

“Our goal is to bargain with the company to include the student workers, but at (Chartwells’) demands right now, in order to have the election at all, the students were excluded,” Elmo said.

For the May 2 election, UFCW estimates there are 120-140 part-time and full-time workers who will comprise the “bargaining unit,” or the group of workers eligible to participate. Chartwells will compile a list of all eligible workers ahead of the election. Chartwells officials and union organizers agreed to terms for the election. Terms include a ban on so-called mandatory “captive audience” meetings 24 hours before the start of the election. 

If at least 50% of the bargaining unit votes in favor of unionization, Chartwells must recognize the union as a collective bargaining entity. Workers will then select a committee of their peers to lead the negotiations process with Chartwells and draft a union contract.

“The Company respects our employees’ right to make an informed decision to choose in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act,” Steven Goodwin, the resident district manager for Chartwells, said in an email statement. Goodwin did not respond to questions regarding the exclusion of students from the election.

The election will be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, a government agency that enforces labor law and collective bargaining. Eligible workers will be able to vote via secret ballot in two locations on campus, depending on where they work. Voting will be open from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

UFCW organizers will aid the workers in this process, but the contract terms — and union dues — are ultimately the purview of the workers, Elmo said.

The workers hope to address issues such as wages, parking and uniform costs and guarantee recall and seniority rights, according to an April 15 UFCW press release. Dues and any other fees will be determined by the workers themselves in the union contract, Elmo said.

“Folks spreading rumors about union dues don’t really understand anything about unions … or how they work,” Elmo said. “This is a union that really believes in the democracy of the workers.”

If the vote passes in favor of unionization, workers can choose to join or leave the union at any time, Elmo said. 

“Because Texas is what’s commonly referred to as a right-to-work state, nobody in the state can be forced to join a union,” Elmo said. “If the union works with them to develop a contract and they don’t like it, they can vote against it and choose not to join the union.”

Elmo said the whole workforce — including students — can often benefit tangentially from union representation, even if they can’t participate in the initial election.

Former student worker and incoming Student Government President Ayoub Mohammed ran on the Labor ticket, which advocated for worker rights. In the election, students elected nine out of 10 Labor candidates.  

“I think it’s very exciting, as a former student worker,” Mohammed said. “If the current workers think this is what’s best for them and this is how they’re going to further … job security or just a better work environment in general, that is great.”

Mohammed said despite the restriction on student workers, the election will be a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s disappointing, considering such a large number of students work there, but it is what it is, and honestly it’s not just the student workers who have their grievances — it’s (also) the full-time workers that don’t go to school here,” he said. “They have their issues as well and a lot of them have signed up in support of the union.”

UTD’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America headed an effort to organize students in support of Chartwells workers’ right to unionize. President of UTD DSA and ATEC junior Erin Bray said they were hopeful the election would bring benefits for both workers and UTD as a whole.

“I think if you have people who are paid well and treated well, we’re going to have fewer food problems,” Bray said. “But that’s just an auxiliary effect. We’re mainly out here for the workers.”

Cristian Otero, a current part-time employee at Chartwells, said student workers should have a voice in the union.

“(Student workers) get paid less than anyone else, they’re often seen as expendable,” Otero said. “They have the worst working conditions.”

Otero has been involved in the effort to organize workers since last semester.

“It’s been a long time coming … I hope everyone votes yes,” Otero said. “People don’t really have a good livelihood (here) because they’re paid so low. Work is 60-70% of your day — if it sucks, that impacts your whole day.”

Texas House Representative Ana-Maria Ramos released an April 18 statement in support of the election and the workers’ right to unionize. Ramos represents House District 102, which includes UTD. 

“It’s exciting for them to finally be heard and have the opportunity to — whether they choose to or not to— join the union,” Ramos said. “If these employees want to be a part of a union and if they’re being in any way being obstructed or intimidated … (from) exercising their constitutional rights (to join a union), it would be very upsetting to me because I know what those people are going through.”

Ramos said during her time working at the Dallas Community College District, she’d spoken with contract custodial workers who expressed many of the same complaints as the Chartwells workers at UTD.

“I was a college administrator for many years and so I know, in speaking with workers on college campuses, especially contract workers, I know first hand … the turnover was high, management was telling them one thing (and doing another) or not paying them or changing their shifts within hours (of the start of the shift),” Ramos said.

Ramos said she reached out to UTD officials to confirm that the university was not involved in the process, in accordance with labor laws. 

“It appeared … from what they expressed to me, that they weren’t involved in any way,” Ramos said.

“The University does not take a position on the decision of Chartwells employees to unionize,” the university said in an emailed statement. “We have been and will remain neutral on this matter.”

In October 2018, UTD PD removed UCFW organizer Cassidee Griffin from campus on a criminal trespass warning after receiving a complaint from the Office of the Assistant Vice President of Auxiliary Services.

According to a November 2018 statement from a university spokesperson, Griffin and other organizers are “not permitted to return to campus because their solicitation activities are not related to any official university business.”

Ramos said she was told that Griffin’s removal was not due to her involvement with the union, but because she wasn’t a sponsored guest of the university. University officials declined to comment further on any involvement with the union ahead of the upcoming election.

UTD DSA later sponsored UCFW organizers to return to campus as guests after Griffin’s removal. 

“We’ve been out there tabling every week and we helped collect some signatures for UCFW,” Bray said. “I think workers being able to advocate for themselves is the most important step, however the rest plays out.”