How Brown University Students and Dining Workers Got Better Working Conditions—Together

How Brown University Students and Dining Workers Got Better Working Conditions—Together

How Brown University Students and Dining Workers Got Better Working Conditions—Together

They started by demanding air conditioning in the main campus dining hall—and now they’re asking for more. 


On the morning of April 11, 2018, 50 house fans blocked the steps of the Brown University campus center, occupying a space usually filled by chatting students. Each was directed out over the Main Green, the heart of campus and a space traversed by thousands daily. If you had been on campus for the the past year, the fans’ message to Brown’s administration was clear: End dangerously hot summer conditions inside the university’s main dining hall, the Sharpe Refectory.

Brown Dining Services employees, many of whom are people of color from Rhode Island’s Cape Verdean community, feed thousands of students year-round. They operate seven eateries across campus, support a massive in-house catering service, and are expected to come in to staff the main refectory even when the university shuts down because of snow or other inclement weather.

Yet with no central air-conditioning system in the 67-year-old refectory building, food-service workers dreaded the “summers of hell,” as one Dining Services employee with 14 years on the job called them. In areas where food is prepared and served, ovens and warming stations boost the already sweltering heat and humidity by at least 10 degrees, employees say. “When it’s 90 outside, inside it feels like 100,” said another employee, who chose to remain anonymous to safeguard her employment.

The fan display was the climax of a year-long student campaign run in collaboration with these same employees to push the university to install an air-conditioning system. And just last month, after over a year of interim measures and the completion of a feasibility study, their efforts paid off. On September 28, administrators told Dining Services employees that Brown has approved a $3-million investment for air-conditioning in the refectory, with a targeted timeline for completion of before next summer.

The move comes as Providence recorded its fourth-hottest summer ever. Despite temporary cooling measures, on July 1 this heat contributed to the serious injury of a dish-room worker, who was hospitalized for several days after experiencing a heat-related seizure, according to another employee close to her family.

Employees say they have raised concerns over these conditions with management for at least two decades. According to Brown University spokesperson Brian Clark, Dining Services promotes “a very open dialogue among staff and management” and an “open-door environment,” adding that “there really have not been concerns expressed on a consistent basis by Dining Services staff.” But workers, including one with 21 years at Brown Dining, said employees have raised concerns about heat with management for as long as she can remember.

“It got to the point to where we kind of stopped fighting it,” the 14-year employee told The Nation, “until we got the support from students.” Clark said student activism, led by the Brown Student Labor Alliance, was “more pronounced” than worker complaints. Refectory workers were unanimous in naming student advocacy as the driver behind temporary cooling measures put in place over the past two summers and, now, a permanent fix. “We’re all happy,” said one worker, “if students didn’t get involved with A/C, we would have never got it.”

While the university’s announcement comes as a relief, workers acknowledge the danger of summer temperatures in the refectory was compounded by understaffing within Dining Services, a year-round problem that is at its worst in June and July. According to Clark, the refectory serves between 1,500 to 2,500 students, many of them high schoolers attending Brown’s summer programs during peak periods in the summer—a little over half of the normal academic year’s traffic. But employees say reduced staffing means they had to work harder in hot conditions to meet demand. Karen McAninch, business agent for the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island (the union that represents Brown Dining workers), said that just 60 percent of staff work year-round. Even some employees with 15 years experience at Brown are jobless come summertime.

All this means that Dining Services operates with almost 100 fewer employees in June and July. Workers say that, rather than increasing the number of year-round workers, management relied on overtime pay. “Everybody’s exhausted,” said McAninch, and “people are not getting recognized for their dedication,” both during the summer and the academic year.

According to Clark, the staffing level during the summer “is what is determined to be appropriate for the demand for dining services.” Yet without more year-round staff, “you have fewer people doing the same job,” said one employee who had just completed her sixth year as a dining worker at Brown.

Staffing is beginning to change, thanks to the union. McAninch said increasing the number of year-round contracts was a central demand during contract renegotiations, which happened in October. The new contract, signed at the end of the month, includes modest increases in the number of workers on 12-month contracts.

Brown students first began campaigning on behalf of Dining Services workers during the summer of 2017. Then a group of students working as resident assistants for Brown’s summer programs united to demand better wages and working conditions. Brown Dining Services employs between 300 and 400 students, some in supervisory roles that require greater cooperation with professional staff—several RAs who knew about the issue from working in Dining brought up the heat in the refectory. According to Jo-Ann Huynh, a 2017 summer RA and student Dining Services employee, Dining workers at the refectory welcomed student advocacy because “they figured we have more power than they do and are better situated [to demand change.]”

As the end of the summer neared, Huynh and other RAs met with Dining Services management and Brown administrators. Barbara Chernow, Brown’s vice president for finance, criticized students for making demands on behalf of the workers and, in one meeting, for circumventing established processes to demand a fix to heating issues, said one member of the group of RAs. Dining Services workers also reported being instructed by Chernow to avoid speaking with students. (Clark said in an e-mail: “Students and employees are free to interact with each other on these issues or others,” adding, “we have certainly encouraged employees to express any concerns through the dining team directly.)

Still, in response to the students, Dining Services installed cooling towers in parts of the refectory—a stopgap measure that workers reported was making some difference, but only when they stood near them.

As the fall 2017 semester began, the group of summer RAs disbanded, and the campaign found a home with the Student Labor Alliance, which has worked to support other labor struggles on campus and in Providence. The group held campus-wide meetings to involve other students, targeted administrators with phone blasts, and covered campus sidewalks with chalked messaged to raise awareness. As the spring 2018 semester drew to a close, few Brown students remained unaware of the heat issues in the refectory. Workers referred to the moment in the spring semester when, as a result of them sharing their experiences privately with Student Labor Alliance members, the cause became a “movement.”

Soon after the April fan demonstration, Brown Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow revealed to the Brown Daily Herald that the university planned to conduct mechanical upgrades to the refectory electrical and duct systems beginning in June 2018, while also carrying out a feasibility study for the implementation of a central air-conditioning system. Clark told The Nation that plans for these upgrades, which he says are necessary first steps for the installation of air conditioning, began to take shape in the fall of 2015 and received funding in 2016—a timeline, he says, that predates the student activist campaigns (the renovations are now ongoing). But student activists and workers point out that the temporary cooling measures came only after students raised the issue back in 2017, and Chernow’s spring 2018 Daily Herald interview was the first time details about the renovations became public. While the university frames the lack of transparency as a matter of not knowing whether air conditioning would be feasible, students criticize administrators for not publicly presenting how they would remain accountable to Dining workers once knowledge of the heat issues became widespread.

Wary that the university had only committed to the possibility of air conditioning without presenting alternatives should it be deemed not feasible, the Student Labor Alliance worked through the summer to build and maintain relationships with workers, as well as communicate with Dining Services management about temporary cooling solutions. Clark said that these steps included offering lighter uniforms to workers, placing more cooling towers and fans in the building, using air-conditioned rooms for breaks, altering the menu, and halting the use of pizza ovens and grills during peak hours. He says these measures brought temperatures down to the 70s and 80s, and workers agreed that they made a difference.

But without a permanent solution, the dining hall stayed hot, contributing to the serious injury of a dish-room worker in July, according to workers who have been in touch with the individual’s family. Clark confirmed that EMS responded to the incident, but said he could not “speculate about the cause” of the injury.

Clark and Dining Services employees both said there have been no other serious injuries, but employees say the conditions are still untenable. “This is the first time I’ve seen it come to that,” one said. “But I knew it was going to happen.”

Other employees recount feeling unable to stay hydrated and struggling to remove their pants in the bathroom due to sweat. Students in the dining hall regularly expressed concern to employees they saw affected by the heat, say workers. One even reported being offered a glass of ice water by a student in line for food. “Sweat is pouring down our faces,” the employee said. “I can see people feeling sick.” Another said, returning home after an eight-hour shift to care for her 6-year-old daughter, “I have no strength. I’m so exhausted.”

There are no specific federal regulations for heat in the workplace, says Shanna Devine, worker health and safety advocate for the national consumer group Public Citizen. The Occupational Health and Safety Act states that employers have a “general duty” to provide workers with a safe working environment. Only three states—California, Washington, and Minnesota—have implemented protective heat standards. The federal government issues heat-safety guidelines to employers, but the burden is on employees to call out unsafe conditions.

Students, Dining Services workers say, also have this power. In Brown’s case, management only communicated its plans and implemented temporary cooling measures after student protests, workers said. “If you [students] would have never got involved, it would have been nothing,” said one worker. “Nothing would have happened.”

Emma Galvin, a senior at Brown and a Student Labor Alliance member, said her group’s biggest successes have come in working to overcome structural divisions between students and university employees. “There’s no structure for facilitating consent between students and workers,” said Galvin. “We’re doing things on their behalf, but there’s no real way for our work to be informing each other.” The Student Labor Alliance wants to develop avenues for student-employee cooperation. On October 7, it hosted a social for its members and Dining Services employees, to recognize the relationships that have been formed and create new ones.

On July 17, 2018, Public Citizen issued a petition co-signed by more than 130 worker organizations to the federal government, asking that it implement heat-stress standards based on existing recommendations published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. These include a sliding scale of permissible heat-exposure duration depending on temperature, acclimatization protocols for new or returning workers, and hydration plans. “Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat,” says the petition, and workers already suffer injury and death in the absence of regulation. The Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health co-signed the petition, but its director, James Celenza, says action from federal regulators “could take years.”

But in Brown’s campaign for air conditioning, students pressured their university on behalf of the labor that sustains it, achieving a swift result. “When we can collectively show that we value workers rights or working conditions that are humane, we have power,” said Galvin. “Our voice matters.”

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