At Protest, Professors and Union Workers Voice Objection to Sodexo Deal

Ed.: Because a lot of us are working this summer, we couldn’t publish this until now. Our writer M.S. Kord attended Wednesday’s protest against the College’s deal with Sodexo and filed this report. The above video is from the Mount Vernon News.

Along with the beautiful blue skies and sun we’ve learned to expect during a Kenyon summer, the morning of Wednesday, June 13, saw several Kenyon maintenance staff, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) 712 members, faculty, students, alumni and community members hold signs and speak about their experiences concerning the College’s decision to outsource the management of its maintenance staff to the French corporation Sodexo, marking the first day of protest of this decision.

Beneath the shade of Middle Path trees, protesters held up a variety of signs, one reading, “23 years at Kenyon. Sold like cattle to the Sodexo slaughterhouse.” Another had the short message, “Community? What community?”

Besides holding signs, outraged protesters with something to say stood one after the other atop one of the many painted red benches on Middle Path and spoke to the crowd of about 100 people. UE 712 president Robert Smith began the speeches, sharing how the decision has affected him and other maintenance workers. Smith said the news of outsourcing was “like waking up from a nightmare.” He called the decision “unbelievable,” noting that Kenyon’s workers had a “combined years of service of 435 years to the College,” with “two members of over 40 years of service.”

Similarly, Professor of English Kim McMullen commented she was “appalled,” and called the decision “a betrayal of our community.”

UE 712 representative Dennis Painter also mounted the bench, declaring the decision sends the “wrong message to the students.” He continued by emphasizing the union had “no idea this was coming,” and that in his past experience Sodexo is difficult to deal with because it “is for profit before people, before Kenyon.”  Painter also called into question the efficacy of the administration in communicating clearly with the union in the past about its concerns, stating, “we have never been approached by this administration [to say] ‘we have money problems, can you help us?’ They have never come to us and said ‘things are not working properly within the maintenance department, we need changes.’ Now we have told them that and they’ve done nothing.”

Painter finished his speech with the assertion that “corporate greed has come to Kenyon and it’s going to take all of us to stop it, [because] if they can farm this work out, no place is safe on campus.” After Painter concluded, one man stood atop the bench and to cheers said, “All we want is a fair price for a fair life.”

Later, Smith spoke again, this time questioning the College’s recent purchase of a nearby farm on Zion Road. “They’d rather buy new property than a new work order system or properly train employees,” he said. Continuing, Smith also suggested many problems stemmed from the management. “[The College] created the management problem by hiring an incompetent manager who can get hundreds of things started but never sees any of them through to the finish,” he said. He also noted that Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman’s vacation this week “speaks volumes about how they view employees.”

Brad Merriam, an electrician who has worked for Kenyon for 14 years, described why he chose Kenyon when searching for a new job. “[I] came here for the community,” he said. Having heard of employees who continued with Kenyon for more than 30 years, Merriam thought at the time, “I want a part of that.”

Like Smith, Merriam also cited flaws within the maintenance system, giving several examples of how tasks he felt capable of completing immediately were outsourced, and ultimately completed several weeks later. He also found fault within the poor organization of the management.

Ron Jacobs, a Kenyon employee of 25 years and senior carpenter on the staff, complained of management decisions that squandered College money, making the maintenance department workers seem unfairly wasteful. Specifically, Jacobs described one instance when selecting new t-shirts for the maintenance staff took four hours because those involved changed the traditional logo on the shirts from “KC Maintenance” to “Kenyon College Maintenance.” He estimated taking just two hours from the 75 workers involved cost the school around $25,000.

He also described management’s reluctance to allow carpenters and other workers to get long-sleeved shirts to protect from potentially harsh working conditions. It took filing a grievance report before they consented, according to Jacobs.

Finally, Jacobs described his experiences with President Nugent. “She never waves or smiles,” he said. “She just looks away; always cold shoulders you.”

One local woman who asked to be identified as an alumna from the class of 2003 and a 31-year member of the Gambier community said, “if people want to talk benefits, look at [Nugent’s] benefits package.”

Other attendees included alumni, local union members unaffiliated with Kenyon, a woman representing teachers who fought the anti-union Ohio Senate Bill 5 and several members of the faculty. After about an hour, the crowd dispersed, with promises of more protests to come.

16 responses

  1. OMG! Have people totally lost their minds?! These people are acting like children. I know for a fact maintenance was told on numerous occasions that they needed to shape up. In my experience this shows, again, how adults act when the gravy train stops. The union and the workers who comprise it thought they could continue to bully and obfuscate to get their way. This happens and NOW they wish to discuss it?! OMG!

    • 100 years ago union members would be killed by national guardsmen, law enforcement, or even the US army acting in conjunction with the corporations if they so much as thought . The workers haven’t tried to “bully” anyone. If anything, those tactics have belong to the administration, who has reduced Kenyon workers to little expendable parts.

      • so much as thought of dissenting**

        This had been a long week and frankly I’m getting fatigued of explaining labor history to so many who refuse to show any amount of compassion.

    • Hey Mitchell. As we’ve been reminded several times lately, there are two sides to every story. I’ve personally witnessed a member of the administrative staff walk past a workman cleaning up after completing his job and ten minutes later call down the hill to complain that the work wasn’t being completed fast enough. I was honestly flabbergasted. There is a lack of understanding and respect on both sides of this situation, but that’s no reason to risk damaging the reputation of the school and it’s relationship with alumni, students, parents, and it’s own staff.

    • What do you mean, NOW they wish to discuss it? Did they ever NOT want to discuss it? Isn’t that a huge part of the problem?

  2. Regardless of how you feel about the college doing business with a company like Sodexo, the way the administration has handled this should be cause for alarm. They have mismanaged every aspect of this crisis and no one will emerge unscathed. How can such educated people commit mistake after mistake? The administration informed no one of their decision and their prolonged silence was broken only by defensive and condescending anger. There is no need to be that mean-spirited to your community members. Do we want an administration which so callously and obviously played in to the dominant narrative of the out-of-touch 1% cynically manipulating the so-called 99%? For a liberal arts college which prides itself on its literary history and tradition, such unawareness of the power of narrative proves just how ignorant those at the top really are. It is like they read Hamlet and decided Claudius was the good guy.

    • Did you watch the public forum. Mean-spirited? Nugent stood her ground sure and might have been evasive at times but she was respectful to all those who spoke and to warp her words into evidence of some corporate 1% hooknosed devil is silly…

      And just because Kenyon is a liberal arts college that prides itself on tradition we need to de-facto accept the 99% 1% narrative? Where’s the room for dissent, the room for discourse? That’s exactly what is happening both in public and private. The transcript of the faculty forum was very illuminating.

      Looking at financial realities is ugly business, I guess it’s not surprising that those in the ivory tower have a tough time digesting it.

      • The financial reality, in President Nugent’s words of seven weeks ago: “It is no exaggeration to say that Kenyon today is the strongest it has ever been.”
        And, “we are on sounder financial footing than we have ever been before.”

        Now, among other changes, President Nugent wants to cut the employer contribution to retirement of a segment of the Kenyon staff by 68%. Details aren’t so clear on health insurance yet, but a substantial increase in cost to employees is expected.

        This is a life-changing event and is on track to go from announced plan to completed deal in two weeks time. Two weeks during which President Nugent made no comment for the first seven days.

        It should be clear why emotions are running high. That President Nugent may be polite while conducting a forum isn’t enough. With the clock ticking this loudly, being evasive and unable to provide details *is* disrespectful.

  3. Pres. Nugents plans go even futher to hurt the employees and community. What happens to the maintanance workers who have homes they are still paying for? With a reduction in pay and benefits how many of these will go back on the market. She dosen’t care the house she lives in on campus is free. Also the pretty Village in which Kenyon lives will suffer a lower tax base. Yes we all hate taxes but the Village stays the nice place it is with the help of the taxes from the maintanance workers. The truth is Pres. Nugent and the head Trustee’s just don’t care.

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