Real Food, Real Jobs, Real Women of Color, Real Workers, Real Hope

In mid-March of this year, a dining hall worker at The George Washington University in Washington, DC named Rochelle Kelly was fired.  Rochelle has worked in the GW dining hall, J Street, for over twenty-seven years.

Why was Rochelle fired?  She had to take time off to care for her husband, who had a stroke.  Then, Rochelle had a heart attack, and took more time off.  This time off is perfectly legal.  The general manager at J Street fired Rochelle anyway, breaking both the law and any sense of common decency.

Rochelle is a recognizable face at J Street and in the university community at large.  She is a leader in the dining worker union, and is friends with many people that frequent the dining hall.  Students, faculty, and others at GW noticed her absence immediately.

GW contracts its dining services to a multinational corporation named Sodexo.  While the workers at J Street face firings, decreasing wages, and disrespect from management, Sodexo makes millions off its contract with the university, and hundreds of millions more worldwide.  Sodexo is a company known for workers’ rights abuses, especially against Black women.  J Street employees are mostly people of color (Rochelle is Black) and Sodexo management is mostly white (like the general manager who fired Rochelle).

Because Rochelle does not currently work for Sodexo, she cannot claim any benefits provided by the company.  She must now work to find ways to pay for health care, food, and other necessities.  Sodexo and GW exploit Rochelle’s extra work—whether it’s care work for her husband or for herself—in order to increase corporate profits, like so many others in debt at the university.  The complete devaluation of the time needed for Rochelle’s care work mirrors the historical devaluation of Black women’s care work in the United States.

But Rochelle’s situation is not only one of misery.  It is also one of hope.  Along with other workers, students, faculty, and community supporters, Rochelle is organizing to get her job back, and to increase the power of dining workers at GW and across Washington, DC.  Over four hundred supporters signed letters to Sodexo, students and workers did a delegation to the general manager’s office, and dining workers at another one of GW’s campuses voted to unionize.

That’s just the beginning.  Women are leading, organizing, teaching, and working to build a better world.  They are doing that through local, national, and global struggles, like the Real Food, Real Jobs campaign.  They are joined by students, workers, and all others who work for a just world.

If you would like to join in solidarity with Rochelle and other food workers, please visit UNITE HERE Local 23’s website and sign their Real Food, Real Jobs pledge here.  If you would like to get involved in the campaign at GW, contact the GW Progressive Student Union at gwprogress@gmail.com.  To leave a message to the Sodexo general manager at J Street, contact Bernadette Thomas at bernadette.thomas@sodexo.com

(Photo Credit: Real Food Real Jobs / Facebook)

About Paul Seltzer

Paul Seltzer has worked with community and labor groups in Washington, DC; northern Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky.