Democratic Debate Back on After Agreement in Venue Labor Fight

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles this week is back on schedule after the venue’s worker union announced Tuesday it had reached a tentative agreement with a campus food service provider.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

All seven Democratic presidential candidates set to debate at Loyola Marymount University in LA promised to skip the event to support campus workers embroiled in stalled contract negotiations with France-based food service giant Sodexo.

Democrats have supported unions across the country for decades and have made workers’ rights a pillar of their national platform.

Unite Here Local 11, the union representing the private university’s more than 150 food service workers, said they would picket on Thursday over the contract spat.

The West LA university contracts with Sodexo to hire cashiers, cooks, dishwashers and other staff who provide campus meals.

Democratic candidates tweeted their support for the workers last week and promised not to cross the picket line to attend the Dec. 19 debate.

“I stand with the workers of @UniteHere11 on campus at Loyola Marymount University fighting Sodexo for a better contract,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a tweet Friday. “I will not be crossing their picket line.”

The dispute prompted calls for the Democratic National Committee and its chairman Tom Perez to either move the debate to a new venue or step-in to move contract negotiations towards resolution.

The pressure paid off: Unite Here announced Tuesday it reached an agreement with Sodexo thanks in large part to committee staffers and Perez.

The agreement will increase workers’ wages by 25%, boost job security and cut health care costs by 50%, the union said. Workers are expected to take a formal vote on the agreement Tuesday.

In a statement, Perez thanked the parties involved and said he was happy to bring people together to resolve the dispute.

“As Democrats, we know the fight for fair wages is about more than just dollars; it’s about dignity,” Perez said. “It’s not about soundbites; it’s about real solutions. That’s what we were able to achieve today – a real solution for hardworking Americans.”

Angela Fisher, a prep cook at LMU, said in a statement Tuesday she was pleased with the agreement.

“I am thrilled that we were able to reach an agreement, and that the candidate debate can continue as scheduled,” said Fisher. “I want to thank the Democratic candidates who stood with us and the Democratic party that helped us win.”

Sodexo confirmed the settlement in a statement Thursday.

“We are pleased to confirm that, after many months of continuous negotiations, we have reached a tentative agreement with Unite Here Local 11 on behalf of Sodexo employees at Loyola Marymount University,” the company said. “Sodexo has agreements with Unite Here at more than 70 sites across the country, and we are very happy our positive working relationship can continue with improved benefits and wages for our employees on the campus of LMU. We have been a member of the LMU community since 1975 and are excited to continue working with our partners on campus to welcome the Democratic presidential debate.”

The university said in a statement it was pleased to play a role in reaching the deal.

“Over the weekend, senior leaders from LMU met with representatives from Sodexo and Unite Here Local 11 to understand better their perspectives and advocate for earnest engagement and progress toward a resolution,” the university said. “LMU values all members of our community and seeks to honor the dignity of all who learn, live, and work at the university, consistent with our values and rooted in our Catholic, Jesuit, and Marymount mission. We are pleased with this outcome and glad that we were able to play a constructive role by bringing the negotiating parties together.”

The DNC had already changed the venue for Thursday’s debate last month after another campus worker union in LA was stalled in negotiations over labor contracts and concerns about outsourcing. Workers at the University of California at Los Angeles went on strike in November as part of a UC system-wide protest over outsourcing of campus jobs to temporary workers who receive no benefits.

The workers’ union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, says the arrangement threatens job security for cooks, pharmacy technicians, janitors and other workforce members.

Democratic presidential candidates said in November they would stand in solidarity with campus workers by not crossing the picket line.

Sanders attended a rally at UCLA this past March in the midst of a 24-hour strike, calling his show of support a sign of his lifelong activism and not a campaign stop.

On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren stood alongside dozens of LMU workers, Perez and California state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo at Unite Here’s office in Inglewood, California. The Massachusetts Democrat praised workers and Democratic officials for their solidarity during contract negotiations and said the union victory will reverberate across the country.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren praised Loyola Marymount University workers outside their union’s office on Dec. 17, 2019, after a long battle to secure a labor contract with Sodexo. The agreement ends a dispute that threatened to put on hold a 2020 debate set to take place this week in Los Angeles. (Martin Macias, Jr. / CNS)

“Unite Here has proven that when workers fight together, workers win,” Warren said. “This is a battle that workers all across the country are facing and unions are leading the way. Unite Here has sent a message across America: one job should be enough.”

Durazo, who is also DNC vice chair and represents California’s 24th District, said the LMU workers “epitomize” struggles for labor rights around the nation.

“These workers put themselves on the line to say ‘We deserve more.’” Durazo said.

When asked about the racial diversity of candidates in Thursday’s debate and the entrance of two billionaires into the race, Warren said she has asked the DNC to expand criteria so that more candidates may qualify.

Warren also expressed dismay about California Sen. Kamala Harris’ departure from the 2020 race and said she opposes billionaires like candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg paying their way into the race.

A UC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of negotiations with AFSCME. But AFSCME Local 3299 thanked the Democratic candidates for standing with it and Unite Here and blasted the University of California in an emailed statement.

“The agreement reached at LMU shows what is possible when an employer decides to negotiate in good faith to address the well-founded concerns of its workers. Sadly, the University of California made a different choice and has yet to offer any real proposal to address its outsourcing abuses and the worsening racialized inequality these practices are creating at our state’s third largest employer.” AFSCME Local 3299 said.

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