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Following pickets, food service workers at Catholic University of America receive historic raise

The new contract with Compass Group USA affects multiple D.C. campuses and includes a $20 minimum wage, retroactive pay, and new worker protections.

Students and Compass workers picket on the campus of The Catholic University of America on April 25, 2023, in Washington. D.C. (UNITE HERE Local 23/Twitter)

WASHINGTON — Many food service workers in the District of Columbia are celebrating a fresh era, having ratified a new deal with Compass Group USA. The company operates, among others, the cafeterias at the Catholic University of America (CUA), which is run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The labor triumph will affect more than a thousand workers—many of them African American—across multiple D.C. campuses, museums, and the World Bank headquarters.

“The new contracts, which are now in effect, mean an immediate $3 raise for all workers with an overall wage increase of more than $8 by 2027. Healthcare for individual workers will become free by 2026. All workers will be eligible for 4 weeks paid parental leave,” the local union, UNITE HERE Local 23 said in a statement on June 27.

“Additionally, Compass has agreed to reduce the use of temporary workers in its DC operations, while expanding the opportunity for workers whom Local 23 represents to get more work through a catering pool.”

News of the deal follows protracted negotiations with the nearly 50 billion-dollar British multinational firm, which saw a market cap increase of more than 27% in its most recent financial year. Compass is the largest family of food service and facilities service companies in America, but balked at its DC workers’ initial request of a “four or five dollar” raise, according to Local 23 lead shop steward Tabitha Johnson, who has worked at CUA for roughly 13 years.

“We saw that they really didn't even want to take us back to the table to negotiate… So then we started to push and do actions on campuses and then it actually got the company moving,” she told BCM.

Those actions included a student-led “Worker Teach-Out” rally on CUA’s campus during in March, which brought out dozens of participants, including several campus club representatives. Community members, including a professor and a representative from the Catholic Labor Network, also shared about the history and theology of Catholic labor organizing. The cafeteria workers had previously requested student support for their union efforts in October.

Those present at the March meeting heard from several Compass workers about their experience working at CUA and their hopes for a better contract to support a living wage. They were also encouraged to don lapel pins supporting the workers’ demands and to sign a related online petition.

Students later joined Compass workers from across D.C. for a protest action at the World Bank headquarters downtown on April 12, followed by a prayer vigil for workers outside the main CUA cafeteria on April 24. Students co-led a picket line the next day, calling for Compass to honor the workers’ demands.

“I know [workers] have been there 40 years and said they've never ever had a picket there, so I believe that was a big push because, you know, of course they don't want that on Catholic’s property,” Johnson said.

“After we actually did our action at Catholic, we got three negotiating days and we told them that now we don't want the five dollars [they were] making us work so hard for. Then we started to bargain down from $10, which is how we ended up at $8.23 over the course of the next four years.”

Local 23 reps also note that the new contract includes worker protections for trans and non-binary employees, for those facing domestic violence, and new accommodations for expectant and nursing mothers.

Employees will also receive a retroactive three-dollar raise dating back to October 1, 2022, according to Johnson.

“I’ve sat at the table at many negotiations since October 1976—that was the first time, when I was six months pregnant—and so much has changed,” said 75-year-old employee Willie Joyner, who is affectionately known on the CUA campus as “Miss Willie” and recently had a new dining room on campus named in her honor.

“To win this is amazing to me. It took perseverance and belief. I was very happy to be able to see this. In the past we got what we could—but this time we got what we needed. We had faith and belief, and we made it happen.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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