On November 30 of last year, Ayse Porsuk was on campus at one of the dining halls handing out literature about her union, Local 1102 of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union. She had with her a copy of the contract that the union had signed with Stony Brook University’s food service provider, Lackmann Culinary Services.
By all accounts she was doing nothing wrong, certainly nothing illegal. So she was surprised when her supervisor, Eisa Shukran, approached her and told her she couldn’t display the contract or any other union literature on campus.
Shukran proceed to harass, intimidate, coerce and restrain Porsuk from participating in union activities, according to court documents obtained by Think. Two days later the union filed a suit against Lackmann with the National Labor Relations Board, and ultimately won minor concessions from the company.
While much of our collective attention has been paid to the ongoing labor disputes in the Midwest—in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana—the attack on unions has been slowly building for years right here on campus.
The case of Ayse Porsuk is just one example of what Local 1102 Director of Collective Bargaining Dennis Romano sees as a quickly deteriorating relationship between his union and Stony Brook University’s contractors.
“I have to tell you, it’s always been tough negotiations with Lackmann,” he said. “That’s fine, I expect that. But it’s more than that now, it’s more of a contentious situation than in the past. That troubles me.”
Stony Brook University’s current relationship with Lackmann began in 2009, when the Faculty Student Association, the semi-autonomous organization responsible for negotiating and signing all of the university’s major contracts, chose the Woodbury-based company to replace outgoing food service provider Chartwells. That summer, they began operations at most of the on-campus dining centers.
Romano says that almost as soon as Lackmann took over, the attitude towards his union and its members changed noticeably.
“Things became different when Lackmann came in,” he said. “We didn’t have these issues with Chartwells. And then Lackmann came in and wanted to change things. Right from the get-go we saw things were changing. Different management teams, different ways of doing things.”
Negotiations that had previously been merely tough became outright hostile. When Local 1102 went to negotiate the contracts of a relatively small group of workers at two auxiliary services at Hofstra University, where Lackmann also holds a contract, they were met with stiff resistance from the leadership at Lackmann.
“They ran an anti-union campaign that you would expect to see with a new union. The employer they got to run it got very aggressive,” said Romano.
Lackmann management disputes the notion that they are being aggressive at all with workers at Stony Brook.
“Lackmann has informed FSA that they are not taking a hard line against union activities,” said Angela Agnello, the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Faculty Student Association.
If that sounds at all dubious, it’s because despite provisions written into FSA contracts that contractors have to abide by fair labor practices, there is no independent agency or committee within Stony Brook University or the FSA to independently investigate claims of workers’ rights violations or any other ethically questionable practices. They are by and large left to take contractors at their word.
Which raises serious questions about the relationship between the Faculty Student Association and its contractors. Just how much control is handed over to private companies at an otherwise public university?
The answer, it seems, is quite a lot. Lackmann not only manages the facilities on campus but they are also the employer for hundreds of workers in each of the campus dining facilities managed by Lackmann. In other words, most food service workers are not university employees.
It’s a model that was adopted in order to shield the Faculty Student Association—and by extension, Stony Brook University—from liability associated with, among other things, labor disputes like the ones currently facing Lackmann Culinary Services.
“Campus Dining employees are employees of Lackmann,” confirmed Angela Agnello. When asked directly whether these workers should be the concern of the FSA and Stony Brook University, she responded: “The food service staff is hired, paid, and provided benefits by Lackmann.”
“I think the university absolutely has a responsibility to all its workers on campus,” said Jackie Hayes, a graduate student at the University at Albany who has studied the history of SUNY and their relationship with auxiliary companies like FSA.
“Anyone can kind of see they work for the university in everything but name,” said Hayes.
At Albany, anti-union measures taken by their food service provider Chartwells in 2009 led to a student-organized campaign against the administration and the University Auxiliary Services (Albany’s equivalent of our FSA) to demand the university take some responsibility for the treatment of these workers. Students successfully applied pressure on Chartwells, who backed down their campaign.
Stony Brook University and the Faculty Student Association are still holding firm on the notion that food service workers are not university personnel and thereby not entitled to the same protections as university employees.
When we pressed FSA on whether food service workers should receive protection from the university if Lackmann continues to act aggressively towards its own employees, we were simply referred back to their statements that these were not university employees. The implication was clear: the answer is no.
“That’s basically them taking this cowardly and cheap route to make their administration jobs slightly easier,” said Hayes.
While there is little the FSA can do to directly improve the conditions of workers on campus, they have any number of means to pressure Lackmann management to make those changes.
“[The FSA] absolutely can cut the contract before it’s end,” said Hayes of the university’s contract with Lackmann. “If they’re not meeting the standards that the university has set they can say ‘we don’t want your business anymore’.”
It’s not just the treatment of their workers that Lackmann controls at Stony Brook. To an alarming degree, Lackmann managers—who by their own admission are not public employees and not affiliated with the university—are able to dictate policy on campus as well.
For example, according to two student food service employees who both asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprimands by their supervisors, it is Lackmann and not the FSA that sets media policy in the dining halls they manage. FSA then enforces that policy.
The policy was on display on April 29, when this reporter attempted to photograph workers in the kitchen of the Union Commons. After receiving permission from a student manager, a Lackmann manager approached me and demanded I leave. Before I could oblige, the manager also asked me to delete any photos I had taken. I did not comply. I was then asked to produce my student ID (again, I did not comply, as the manager is not a university employee), and was then threatened with campus police. At no point was a university employee notified of the situation.
While the Faculty Student Association may be comfortable turning a blind eye, the university may not have a choice over their involvement soon. Local 1102 is getting ready for the next significant negotiation with Lackmann, this time over the contract of cooks that service the university. If the union faces similar campaigns that Lackmann has waged in the recent past, Dennis Romano plans on making the negotiations FSA’s business.
“In the event that things don’t change, I will certainly make the FSA aware of any labor unrest that may occur,” he said.
Ironically, Local 1102 is also the union that represents FSA’s own clerical employees, so Romano and the rest of the union have experience with direct negotiations with the administration of the Faculty Student Association. Unlike Lackmann, says Romano, the FSA has always conducted negotiations in good faith.
For its part, the FSA believes there are already ample ways for workers to raise the alarm if they feel their rights are being violated.
“To the best of our knowledge, employees have options for grievance hearings, arbitration and recourse with the National Labor Relations Board under that contract and under Federal Law,” said Agnello.
Access to the National Labor Relations Board is evident in the growing litany of cases being brought against Lackmann by workers at Stony Brook. In addition to the case of Ayse Porsuk, Lackmann has also been party to suits in 2008 and now again in 2011.
According to NLRB Board Agent Noemi Wasserstrom, another suit was filed by Local 1102 on April 8 against Lackmann on behalf of the truck drivers that service Stony Brook University.
“It comes down to lack of benefits, wages, working condition, general overall treatment. Specifically, they are not paid accordingly,” said Romano.
As for the most recent case (the one involving Ayse Porsuk), court-mandated bulletins were posted at the entrance to every dining hall where unionized employees work stating that Lackmann managers would not engage in anti-union behavior. They hung there for at least 60 days, until mid-April. By then, Eisa Shukran, the manager named in the case, had left his job. We asked the FSA what the circumstances were surrounding his departure, and were not given any specifics.
“FSA does not comment on personnel issues,” said Agnello. “Lackmann has informed FSA that Mr. Shukran left Stony Brook to accept another position.”
That position is as the Compass Group District Manager for the area encompassing, among other things, Stony Brook University. Shukran left to take a promotion.