Monday, September 29, 2003

Longtime cashier is sold on union membership

When Rowena Williams took a job serving meals at Xavier University 46 years ago, the Jesuit school admitted only male students and Williams earned 75 cents an hour.

Now the grandmotherly cashier whom students call "Miss Ro" serves some of the sons and daughters of her first customers.

And her wages have improved.

It took her 25 years to earn $8 an hour. Now she makes about $11 an hour - more than most cafeteria cashiers, who make $8 to $10 an hour.

Miss Ro said she's happy working with young people; she knows many by name.

Her supervisors, she says, are understanding, flexible and "would do anything for you."

So, when a union approached her because it wanted to represent Xavier's 90-plus food service workers, Miss Ro resisted.

She didn't want dues taken out of her already meager paycheck. She wasn't sure a union was necessary.

Over the last two years, she's changed her mind. For her, it was a question of compassion.

She never felt pressure from her employer, Sodexho, she said. She never felt her job was threatened.

The process was understated and calm. There were no hunger strikes or mass demonstrations by union advocates, no fear-inspiring anti-union videos or mandatory worker meetings by her employer.

Instead, both sides agreed on a process in which workers checked off their preference for or against the union on a card. An independent party then counted them.

It's one of two common ways to hold a union vote: The second is a secret ballot overseen by the federal National Labor Relations Board.

The secret ballot votes are often appealed by employers, which can result in months or years of delay. The card-check process is quicker but has fewer protections for employers because, for one, they can't appeal it.

At Xavier, the card-check process got a boost from students and faculty. And from a letter sent by Xavier's president Father Michael Graham urging both parties to agree on a neutral election, according to a press release by the union, the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union Local 12.

Xavier food service workers voted for Local 12 in December. Earlier this month the workers ratified their first contract.

The gains were modest: Full-time workers like Miss Ro get a $1.25 raise over two years and overtime pay for the sixth and seventh consecutive workday. Part-timers get paid holidays and funeral leave.

Most importantly for Miss Ro, the new contract puts health care within the reach of her co-workers.

She is covered by her husband's health care plan, but Miss Ro knew many of her co-workers were uninsured because they couldn't afford it.

Only nine of the 92 workers were signed up for the old health plan. Several workers told me they couldn't afford the monthly premiums, which for a single worker were $126 a month.

It's not surprising. The Kaiser Family Foundation said recently that employers' health costs alone rose 13.9 percent this year.

This contract cut workers' premiums about 50 percent. Miss Rois glad to have helped lighten their burden.

"I did it to help the younger ones out. They have families and they're struggling."


E-mail or phone 768-8395

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