This afternoon, President S. Georgia Nugent made her first official statement on the College’s plan to outsource its maintenance management to Sodexo. In a long Q&A, Nugent attempted to dispel the rumors which have been circulating in the week since the College’s announcement. Here’s what you need to know:
What is Sodexo?
The French firm, which was founded in 1966, is “the leading provider of integrated food and facilities management services in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico” serving “10 million consumers in 6,000 locations every day,” and they employ nearly 380,000 people in 80 countries, according to company publicity materials.
In an interview with The Thrill this morning, Nugent cited the organization’s size as one of its chief appeals. “The size and range of Sodexo means that they have a very broad base of experience and resources. I believe they contract with approximately 800 colleges and universities in America. And so if part of what you’re trying to do is gain access to broader experience and resources, that kind of reach is an advantage.”
What is the proposal?
When United Electrical Workers, Machine and Radio Workers of America (UE) Local 712, Kenyon’s maintenance union, entered contract negotiations on June 5, they were informed that the College was in the final stages of signing a partnership with Sodexo that would give that firm managerial control over Kenyon’s maintenance operations. Nugent cautioned, however, that “one fact that is sometimes being overlooked in this discussion is that we are employing [Sodexo]; they’re not employing us. If we are not happy with the services or the practices of that organization, we won’t continue to employ them.”
Will anyone lose his or her job?
“The contract specifies that no positions will be lost,” Nugent said.
Why has Kenyon’s decision to contract with Sodexo been controversial?
The backlash to the College’s decision is due to a host of allegations that have been made about Sodexo’s labor practices, the most serious of which resulted in an $80 million settlement with thousands of black employees who, according to The New York Times, “charged that they were routinely barred from promotions and segregated within the company.”
Many students and faculty members have also taken issue with the abrupt way in which union members were informed of the decision to contract to Sodexo and the fact that the community was not consulted prior to it being made.
Were senior staff members aware of Sodexo’s allegedly checkered past when they selected its bid over two competing ones?
Nugent told The Thrill that the senior staff and board of trustees who approved the plan were aware of negative allegations made about Sodexo prior to approving the deal. However, she cautioned against making snap judgments. She cited, for example, a countersuit filed by Sodexo against the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), alleging that the Union engaged in “unfair labor practices.”
Nugent said, “It would be easy to say, ‘well, these people have been evil.’ I think things are more complex many times, particularly in an organization that is that large. And so, we can say, ‘why would we ever work with a large organization?’ Well, this is one of the conditions of our world.”
“Do you have an iPhone?” she asked the reporter interviewing her (he does). “Do you worry about Apple? Do you ever wear Nike shoes? That’s my point. I think this is a condition of our world that there are these large, multinational corporations. They are not perfect. They are probably also not the devil. And so, one has to make judgments.”
In reference to Sodexo’s 2005 settlement, Nugent said, “My own research leads me to believe that, in fact, Sodexo experienced a serious wake up call several years ago with these allegations, and it looks to me, and what I have learned from presidents on other campuses, is that they took those concerns very seriously and have really worked to employ the best practices.”
“Mark [Kohlman, chief business officer] and I have spoken with folks on some other campuses that contract with Sodexo,” Nugent said, “and one of the things that Mark did in visiting was to simply go around and talk to people on the grounds. And what he found was staff members who were very happy with their situation.
“A good example would be Skidmore [College]. I have spoken with Skidmore’s president about this and what we found was that the employees who are on Sodexo’s payroll actually felt themselves to be members of the Skidmore community just like they had always been. They’re not wearing Sodexo uniforms or something, and they were very happy with their employment. So that was a big factor to us.”
Nugent added, “I think in part one has to look to what an entity expresses as its values; there is certainly plenty of information that Sodexo expresses and kind of insists on values that are consistent with Kenyon’s values.”
What does the College stand to gain if the contract with Sodexo goes through?
For one, it stands to save around $500,000 a year, according to Nugent. Speaking with The Thrill, she noted that the senior staff rejected a proposal from Sodexo that would have trimmed $1 million from the annual budget. “That was not what we wanted to do,” she said. “We wanted to be sure that our employees were kept whole. We didn’t want to scrounge, if you may. And so the savings that can be realized are not related to salary or benefits. They’re related to a couple of things: the greater purchasing power that comes with a large organization; the expenditures that we will not be making on hiring external contractors, but that will come as a part of the services from Sodexo; and just being able to carry out some of our operations more efficiently.” Sodexo may also be able to manage complex work orders on buildings like the Kenyon Athletic Center which the College has had to outsource in recent years.
And what will Kenyon do with the annual savings? According to Barry Schwartz, chairman of the board of trustees, the decision “will ultimately enable Kenyon to contain and reduce costs … [and] will not impact the quality of our program at Kenyon or curtail our efforts to make the Kenyon education accessible; that is to say, it won’t adversely impact our financial aid budget. That is the hope, that it will positively impact the financial aid budget.”
What will the Sodexo contract mean for maintenance workers?
While contract negotiations with both Sodexo and UE Local 712, Kenyon’s maintenance union, are still underway, the College confirmed in a press release that eight of the non-union members who will be transitioning to Sodexo will do so “at their current salaries and will continue to receive the Kenyon or GLCA Tuition Remission program benefit as long as they work on the Kenyon campus for Sodexo. As Sodexo employees they will also receive a [Sodexo] benefits package comparable to benefits they receive at Kenyon.” According to the UE 712 President Robert Smith, however, his union is “assuming, at least, that we’re looking at deep cuts to benefits and wages through Sodexo. I don’t see how else this company can come in here and save the college the kind of money that Mark Kohlman says they’re going to save unless it’s through cuts.”
What exactly is the GLCA Tuition Remission program?
Select employees at the 13 member colleges of the Great Lakes College Association pay 15% of the mean tuition if his or her child enrolls at a GLCA institution. Speaking with The Thrill, President Nugent said, “the senior staff made the decision that those employees who are currently our employees would retain the right to the GLCA benefit. Now, let me add one other aspect there. … It is only the 23 members of the Union and eight of the maintenance staff who are being transitioned to Sodexo. That entire division of the College [including the custodial staff] is approximately 100 people. Over the past decade, 10 individuals have made use of the tuition benefit.”
If Sodexo makes new hires in the maintenance department, will they receive the tuition benefit?
“I would presume that going forward the GLCA will probably not be available to those people who were not already Kenyon employees,” Nugent said. “I think that the way I see the American economy going, it’s not going to be surprising if some extremely rich benefits have to be cut back.” However, it’s important to remember that until the union contract is finalized, any statements made about benefits in that contract are speculation.
Is this Kenyon’s first outsourced contract?
In her statement to the community, Nugent notes, “we have outsourced food service at the College since 1968, first with Saga, then Aramark (a large, multi-national company much like Sodexo) and now with AVI.”
Speaking with The Thrill, Nugent said, “I also am not ignorant of the fact that many people simply get nervous at the thought of a large corporation. So in that way it wasn’t surprising. I think what’s unfortunate now is that there is an anxiety that in many ways doesn’t have a clear content. It takes the form of, ‘this will destroy Kenyon.’ And you’ve been here long enough to know that almost any change takes the form of, ‘this will destroy Kenyon.’ Putting locks on the doors was going to destroy Kenyon. Cutting down the tree to build the art building was going to destroy Kenyon. And there’s a good side to that, which is people’s love of this place and what it is. But inevitably there will be some changes.”
The College will hold an open forum on Friday, June 22, at 11:00 a.m.., and talks with UE Local 712 are slated to resume June 19, 20 and 21. Tomorrow, there is a meeting between administrators and faculty members. The union members are also planning to protest the deal on Middle Path at 11:30 a.m.