From Clark Kerr Campus to Foothill, promotions of Cal Dining’s fair-trade coffee, local artisan cheeses and food waste initiatives fill counter space and napkin holders. From one dinner shift at Crossroads, the Cal Dining Sustainability Team reported a total of 432 pounds of food waste. But the student-workers who served this food often go without meals and struggle to pay rent. The very people who feed their peers on a daily basis are forced to throw away hundreds of pounds of food on hungry stomachs while their employer is awarded recognition from the EPA for its sustainability efforts. In a powerful move in early March, student-workers on shift for lunch walked off their jobs at Crossroads to a crowd of student-workers from all four dining halls on campus and countless supporters to announce the formation of the Undergraduate Workers Union, or UWU.
Cal Dining proudly showcases an endless list of environmental awards on its website. In 2014, Cal Dining submitted an entry to the Loyal E. Horton Awards for its special event, For the Love of Chocolate, which featured fair-trade chocolate gushing out of two fountains. This event had a “marketing and execution” expense of $12,000 for one event in one dining hall. Cal Dining won a 2016 Higher Education Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Best Practice Award for Brown’s Cafe, a restaurant that provides extreme local meals. This past fall, Cal Dining opened a made-over Cafe 3 as a plant-forward dining hall, serving kosher and halal options.
On March 23, the UWU took a self-guided sustainability tour of Cafe 3. Led by fellow student workers from Cafe 3, the goal of the tour was to highlight that the mistreatment of student workers is something felt across all dining halls. Each facility has different labor issues it focuses on, but these pressing issues of wage theft, safety hazards and health violations are universal across all Cal Dining locations. The tour guide walked around the different stations to showcase the safety and health issues at each food service of Cafe 3. For instance, the pizza station features 550 degrees of burning metal and handles. With our plastic gloves, students can get burned just touching the handle of the pizza stove. At the line, as eloquently stated by our fantastic guide, students have three excellent opportunities to get burned: before the job, during the job and after the job! Before the job, when supplying food, there are trays filled with boiling water and, again, only flimsy plastic gloves and ragged towels to carry them with. Since food has to be kept at 140 degrees or higher, during the shift, students are often burned from handling metal utensils that have no rubber heat protection on them.
Since its reconception as a vegetarian/vegan dining hall, Cafe 3 has seen dwindling numbers of customers, and it is widely assumed that Cafe 3 has the “best” working conditions for its workers. But what does it say when the manager on duty for the tour calls the police on us the moment we step in the front door and criminalizes us for attempting to speak out? The level of intimidation from this manager during the tour only served to scare us from continuing to organize for our rights and make work feel like an unsafe environment.
Beyond safety and health concerns, a research report from Georgetown University captures informative data and trends regarding student labor. Those who tend to struggle at the university are often those who have few other options but to work in order to finance their education. They are disproportionately Black or latino and low-income.
Students who wind up dropping out because of struggling to balance their work and academics are likely to struggle for future opportunities and even more so if they took out loans. The burden of working too much while enrolled in classes can push marginalized students deeper into debt with none of the benefits promised by a degree in higher education.
Grace Lin knows these struggles all too well. Lin came to UC Berkeley with the intention of being a student, as we all do. Because of their gender identity and sexuality, Lin anticipated being cut off from their parents as soon as they turned 18 years old. Driven entirely by fear of becoming homeless because of the high rent prices in Berkeley, Lin worked three jobs over their first academic year at Berkeley. Still, costs were too high, and Lin was forced to take time off of school in order to save enough to pay for college in the future.
The promotion of fair-trade coffee and local artisan cheeses may boost Cal Dining’s public image, but this surface-level sustainability rhetoric assuredly does not reflect the reality of the dining halls. It is not sustainable to eat food served by workers who cannot afford to pay their rent or feed themselves while undergoing wage theft and other labor abuses. Using student employees for labor until they burn out is clearly not sustainable for those that come to UC Berkeley for an education.
Our campus hails newly minted posters asking, “What will you do in this generation?” as a promotion of campus-affiliated projects stamped with the #inthisgen hashtag. One of these banners features the fight for fair wages by restaurants workers, spearheaded by Saru Jayaraman, director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center. Jayaraman says in her book “Behind the Kitchen Door”: “Food can’t really be healthy, ethically consumed, or sustainable if it’s prepared and served in an environment that permits abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.” Food justice must incorporate living wages and safe working conditions to ensure that those who serve our food too can enjoy healthy and sustainable lives.
The Undergraduate Workers Union is fighting for a right to the university and their workplace by demanding that their Zero Waste-committed university and employer prioritize them through a holistic sense of sustainability. This means that student-workers should have working conditions and wages that enable them to survive as students and workers. That is what student-workers at UC Berkeley are doing #inthisgen.
Lucy Nguyen Tate is a student-worker at Crossroads and former coordinator of the Cal Dining Sustainability Team. Celine Chen is a student-worker at Cafe 3 and former member of the Cal Dining Sustainability Team.