By Chris Bulfinch ’18 and Max Furigay ’19
A group of Chartwells employees and Trinity students marched down Vernon Street at the height of Saturday’s Homecoming with UNITE HERE Local 217 signs held high, their chants mingling with the sound of tailgaters in the brisk fall air. To the tune of an old Frosted Flakes jingle, they cried “We are the union, the mighty mighty union!”
The demonstration was intended to protest Chartwells, Trinity’s contracted food service provider, which over the summer stipulated that Trinity’s food service staff would have to begin covering part of their own health care. Saturday’s demonstration came on the heels of a similar action on Oct. 18, over Trinity Days.
The dispute between Chartwells and the workers involves the new contract put forward by Chartwells during the summer. After the expiration of the old contract, which had provisions to cover all Chartwells’ employees, in June, Chartwells proposed moving employees away from a full-coverage insurance plan to one that
would require them to pay some amount of their health care costs out-of-pocket.
Coupled with decreases in working hours across the board due to the closure of the C-Store, the union alleges that the new insurance proposal constitutes a pay cut tantamount to one to two dollars per hour. Chartwells employees on campus, many of whom have been working for the company for over 15 years, have been working without a contract since late summer.
The contract negotiation has been in progress for months, with no sign of significant advancement. Per Connie Holt, a UNITE HERE organizer and spokesperson, Chartwells had agreed to cover 90 percent of health care costs, up from their initial offer of 80 percent coverage. This change came after the first protest organized by the UNITE HERE union, which brought in food service workers from a variety of employers across the state. The union itself represents food service workers from colleges such as Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Hartford, and the Coast Guard Academy. While that protest remained near Mather Circle, this rally progressed throughout the campus for maximum impact.
Saturday’s protest began around Mather Circle, where a group of Chartwells employees gathered shortly after noon. Joined by several students, they formed an initial picket line next to Mather before moving down Summit Street to the top of Vernon.
Passing cars, particularly those driven by other Trinity food service workers, honked their horns as they drove by the march.
Campus Safety officers watched as the protesters progressed. Campus Safety’s policy is to allow demonstrations to proceed organically unless they prove disruptive to the flow of students throughout campus, according to Brian Heavren, Trinity’s Director of Campus Safety. Both demonstrations were pre-approved by Campus Safety, who maintained a heavy presence both near Mather Circle and up and down Vernon St. during the protest. Hartford Police officers were present, although they were also supervising the Homecoming events in general.
Eventually, the protesters arrived at the parking lot near the Hansen dorm, where they reformed a picket line on the sidewalk of Vernon St.
Tailgaters, including students, administrators, and alumni, looked on, with a cursory few cheering or calling out, solo cups held aloft.
The goal of the union was to reach the largest audience possible by distributing information during Homecoming on Vernon St., the social center of campus. On Nov. 4, the day before the protest, Chartwells employees handed out fliers at the block party where they were working.
Joe DiChristina, Trinity’s Dean of Student Life, observing the protest, declined to comment for this article. Trinity’s Chief Financial Officer Dan Hitchell reiterated the Trinity administration’s position that the College “appreciates the hard work and dedication of the food service employees who serve our community,” adding that “we [Trinity’s administration] do not intend to get involved in contract negotiations between Chartwells and the union, we have offered both parties the opportunity to bring issues to the Trinity administration.”
The picketers remained on Vernon St. for some time, chanting “no justice, no peace, no contract, no peace,” holding aloft signs reading “Get a moral compass! Treat us with respect!” The larger food service conglomerate that controls Chartwells is called Compass.
Many Trinity students joined in the protest, reflected in the chant “We are the union! The students are the union!”
By the end of the football game, the picketers had dispersed, pulled by scheduling constraints to other places, whether back to their homes or Trinity’s dining facilities. Congregating one last time back at Mather Circle, Jose Villegas, who had been leading the chants and demonstration with a megaphone, thanked all for their participation. He concluded by expressing his and other workers’ sense of solidarity with the students, and his hopes that a resolution could be reached between Chartwells and the food service workers across the state of Connecticut.
Villegas indicated the willingness of the workers to fight for their labor standards. The words, chanted by the protestors, echoed through the fall sky: “They say take back, we say fight back!”
Chartwells declined to comment for this article.
By Chris Bulfinch ’18 and Max Furigay ’19