Workers employed by Sodexo at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans aimed to raise the potential stakes on Monday in their upcoming contract negotiations, saying they were prepared to strike if the food-services contractor doesn’t agree to formal talks over higher pay.
The New Orleans workers joined with other Unite Here members working for Sodexo at convention centers in Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; Detroit; and Sacramento, California, to deliver an ultimatum related to potential labor actions as their employment contracts expire.
Those working at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando voted last week to strike as their contract expired. The current Sodexo contract with workers at the New Orleans Convention Center is due to expire Dec. 31.
A strike threat
At a virtual news conference held over Zoom on Monday, Unite Here representatives said their members were unhappy with pay and benefits, as well as the fact that Sodexo has not replaced many of the workers furloughed during the pandemic. That has left them carrying a heavier burden as convention business returns, they said.
Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23 in New Orleans, said that Sodexo at the Morial Convention Center currently employs 90 people, which is down from 150 before the pandemic even though convention business this year had returned to levels comparable to 2019.
“Our members … are ready to take action as needed to fight for a better contract,” she said. “I know our members are inspired by their union siblings in Orlando and Las Vegas.”
Sodexo spokesperson Paul Pettas said the Unite Here strike threat is a negotiating tactic as the contracts come up for renewal.
“Today was merely the announcement of potential strike votes (and the approval of such in Orlando and Vegas); all part of their tactics,” Pettas said via email. “It’s an active negotiation; trust me we are very engaged with Unite Here on a regular basis.”
Unite Here said Sodexo had not yet agreed to formal negotiations on the specific terms of the upcoming contract renewal.
Falling behind inflation
Unite Here representatives complained that wages haven’t kept up with inflation. The lowest-paid nontipped Sodexo worker at the Morial Convention Center is paid $13.25 an hour, with the average at about $16 an hour.
“Right now, I’m renting a room for $250 per week, I’ve developed hypertension and I’ve lost a tooth since I started working for Sodexo,” said Wanoneica Arnold, a Sodexo cook at the Convention Center. “If I got a raise, I could afford an apartment, a place to lay my head. I want to see fair pay, retirement, medical, dental and vision, medical time off and raises across the board,” she added.
In New Orleans, the Convention Center had 50% fewer Sodexo workers in August 2022 than in February 2020, according to Unite Here.
The union also said that Black workers were more likely not to keep their jobs than White workers, with 57% of Black workers losing their jobs, compared to 51% of White workers.
Convention Center officials did not respond to requests for comment.