Workplace Bullying Moves Food Service Workers to Organize and Unionize

 (L-R) Alice Bradshaw, Cindy Ridinger, Holly Timmons, Terri Morris. LEA members, food service workers at Dunbar Elementary School.

(L-R) Alice Bradshaw, Cindy Ridinger, Holly Timmons, Terri Morris, food service workers at Dunbar Elementary School. (Photo: Dan Cook)

For long-suffering food service workers in the Laurel School District in Delaware, who endured years of bullying and hyper-criticism by a district manager, the end to the indignities came in March.

That’s when the newly formed Laurel School District Food Service Workers (LSDFSW) signed their first contract with the district, an acknowledgement of “the respect we had always deserved,” says Terri Morris, a food service worker at Dunbar Elementary School.

“You can’t put a price on that contract for what it signifies,” says Morris, a veteran of 24 years with the district, the last 18 at Dunbar. “It means we are empowered as individuals and as a group.”

The two-year contract through 2018 ensures for the first time in the lives of these education support professionals (ESPs) that they can rely on having a grievance process, standard leave policies, overtime pay, professional development, seniority consideration for job openings, and a 15-minute break between breakfast and lunch shifts.

“It’s a new day,“ Morris adds.

Along with Morris, Penny Dukes of North Laurel Elementary School is credited with inspiring food service workers at Dunbar, North Laurel, Laurel Middle and High Schools to join the Laurel Education Association (LEA), comprised of approximately 125 teachers, and 55 paraeducators, custodians and clerical service workers. LEA is affiliated with the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA).

“When administrators learned what was going on in our school kitchens, they were shocked,” says Dukes, a 25-year veteran with the district. “We take pride in our work and are willing to learn how to do things different. You just need to communicate that to us. We don’t need to be screamed at.”

We had no voice at the table and that had to change. We were losing workers with decades of experience who decided to retire early because they couldn’t take it anymore.” – Penny Dukes, North Laurel Elementary School

In addition to the verbal abuse, workers were expected to work extended hours without pay to complete tasks dictated by the district officer.

In the spring of 2015, Morris and Dukes began to speak with colleagues one on one about the toxic environment that had developed in school kitchens across the district. However, they knew they had no access, influence or leverage with district officials.

“We had no voice at the table and that had to change,” Dukes says. “We were losing workers with decades of experience who decided to retire early because they couldn’t take it anymore.”

Finally, at a meeting last fall, 19 out of 20 district food service workers voted to join LEA.

“We didn’t quite know what we were getting into,” Morris says. “But we are glad we stuck with it.”

While these ESPs now had a foot in the door, they did not have a seat at the table until a contract was negotiated.

“In the beginning, even after the vote, some workers were scared of losing their jobs if they participated,” says Dukes. “But we knew we were not alone anymore.”

LEA President Sue Darnell understood the plight of these workers better than anyone. She had been their unofficial advisor.

“They didn’t have anyone to speak up for them,” says Darnell, a teacher at Dunbar for 26 years. “I’d try and advocate for them even though they weren’t LEA members, but I was told by administrators, “You don’t represent them.” The door was shut.”

During the four sessions leading up to a negotiated contract, Darnell says Morris and Dukes sat confidently across the table from district supervisors and made their case against workplace bullying.

“They showed great strength and unity,” she says. “Their addition has also strengthened LEA.”

According to Darnell, during negotiations Dukes and Morris also articulated the value of food service workers. They discussed their training, experience and skills, for example, with regard to monitoring temperature controls, dietary requirements, refrigeration safety standards, and knowing how to measure precise portions of ingredients in accordance with government-approved recipes.

“We also have to be able to lift at least 50 pounds,” says Morris, in reference to the heavy boxes of meat and produce that must be transported from a delivery area to the kitchen. “Being a food service worker is not for the faint of heart.”

The timing for negotiations in spring benefited the food service workers, says Darnell, because of recent leadership changes at the district level.

“There was a new mindset among district officials taking shape at the time,” she says. The disrespectful manager who caused a ruckus for food service workers, for example, resigned about the time the contract was being negotiated.

“We want to encourage food service workers to view themselves as educators who are valued for their service,” says Assistant Superintendent Ashley Giska, who led the district’s negotiating team. “It’s easy for them to be viewed as outsiders. We want to alleviate that.”

Since the contract was signed, Darnell says Giska and other district officials have been quick to address member concerns.

“We set ground rules and kept to them,” Darnell says. “We agreed to be respectful, focus on problem-solving, and honor the privacy of what was discussed.”