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Staples, packing tape and boxes of posters littered the first floor of University Christian Ministry (UCM) Friday afternoon. Close to 15 Northwestern University students sat on the floor constructing signs for nearly two hours in preparation for a possible strike by University dining and service workers.
Compass Group, a global service company, employs Northwestern service workers, including dishwashers, cashiers and cooks. The labor union representing Northwestern Compass workers, UNITE HERE Local 1, is planning a strike to demand better wages and more support for its workers.
The start date of the strike is uncertain, but Northwestern students showed their support Oct. 8 and helped prepare by making signs for workers. Approximately half of the students were members of Students Organizing for Labor Rights (SOLR), a group that backs campus workers. UCM members made up the other half.
Margarita Breceda De Reza, a dining worker at Northwestern, said she is happy to know the students are standing up for workers like her. She has worked at Sargent dining hall for three years, and said her $15.45 per hour salary is not enough to support her family. “This city is very, very expensive,” De Reza said. “My bills are high, and my mortgage is higher.”
De Reza said she has to worry about how she will pay the bills every month. She can’t afford to send her youngest daughter to college, and Compass does not cover her health insurance, she added.
According to a recent report by UNITE HERE Local 1, Compass employees at Northwestern made an average of $27,843 in 2019. The report also shows that a single adult with one child living in the Chicago metropolitan area must make $67,080 to support themselves, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.
The UNITE HERE Local 1 report also surveyed 160 Compass workers at Northwestern and found that 58% of them can’t afford to pay all their bills and 74% have $1,000 or less in their savings accounts.
The pandemic was especially tough for De Reza. During that time, she was laid off and received no support from the University, she said. “In some moments, I don’t think the University recognizes us as part of the community,” she said.
Northwestern spokesperson Jon Yates issued a statement to the RoundTable regarding the potential strike and student involvement with the labor movement: “Northwestern University strongly supports and encourages free expression, including the right to demonstrate.”
The statement went on to emphasize that service workers are vital to the Northwestern community, and that Compass is a trusted partner. The University understands the importance of the negotiations between the union and Compass, it read. “We hope for a swift and equitable resolution to these negotiations,” the statement concluded.
UCM, at 1834 Chicago Ave., is actively involved with SOLR and the labor movement, said the Rev. Julie Windsor Mitchell, Campus Minister. “We want to advocate for the rights of workers,” Mitchell said. “We believe that we need to put our faith into action and advocate for justice for those on the margins.”
John McDermott, a Northwestern student and a leader at UCM, said workers had struggled to find a space to plan events related to the labor movement and the upcoming strike on university property. UCM owns its building, so it was able to offer space for hosting such events.
“We’re gonna keep fighting for the workers,” McDermott said. “We’re not going anywhere.”