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Concessions contract protest ends in 27 student arrests

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Senior Scott Davis, the demonstration's police liaison, is processed for trespassing charges by the UWPD after being removed from the president's conference room.

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Sophomore Morgan Currier leads fellow protesters in chants while they await arrest inside the president's conference room in Gerberding Hall.

Members of the UW Kick Out Sodexo Coalition were arrested and kicked out of Gerberding Hall yesterday.

Twenty-seven students were arrested after staging a six-hour sit-in in the offices of Interim President Phyllis Wise. The students were read their rights by UWPD officers and taken outside one by one, cited with criminal trespass and released around 7:30 p.m.

The UW Kick Out Sodexo Coalition, which protests the UW’s contract with food vendor Sodexo, has been vocal about its opposition to the company’s alleged workers’ rights violations. Starting in Johnson Hall, approximately 50 students marched up the stairs of Gerberding Hall and entered Wise’s office on the third floor, filling the hallway and doorways and demanding the contract’s termination while Wise was speaking in a conference call.

“We went into her office around 1:30 p.m.,” Gaby Guillen, Kick Out Sodexo Coalition member, said. “She was in her office, and we sat down in there. We were forcibly removed and brought to her conference room.”

After being displaced from Wise’s main office by the UWPD, students remained in the adjacent conference room texting, calling and shouting out the windows to friends and supporters organizing in Red Square. Throughout the afternoon, two to five police officers were located in the president’s offices with students.

Cmdr. Jerome Solomon, the UWPD’s public information officer, said that students were within their rights to occupy the public building and were not over the fire-code limit of the conference room.

“The police said, as long as we are being peaceful and respectful, we won’t be arrested,” Guillen said in the afternoon. “We will not be leaving until we meet with Wise, and she agrees to terminate the contract with Sodexo.”

Students came prepared for a long stay, bringing food, homework, games, sleeping bags and kitty litter, in the event of denied access to bathrooms.

Six hours later, the students were asked to leave, and they refused.

Scott Davis, Kick Out Sodexo Coalition member and the demonstration’s police liaison, said that a group of leaders spoke to Eric Godfrey, vice president and vice provost for student life, who told them that Wise would not meet with them.

“They pulled a group of us aside to talk to Eric Godfrey,” Davis said. “He told us that Wise was not going to meet with us today no matter what, and we needed to leave the building. We went and talked to the whole group again, and they agreed they wanted to stay there unless Wise talked to us.”

Godfrey said that he thought the students’ actions was understandable, but that it disrupted the normal operations of the university.

“We’re always prepared for civil action,” Godfrey said. “When it bumps up against disrupting normal university business, then it becomes more of a challenge, and that’s where we found ourselves tonight.”

Kick Out Sodexo Coalition members who did not participate in the sit-in rallied outside of Gerberding before bringing their signs and chants inside to the entrance to Wise’s office.

Jessica Wallach, one of the Kick Out Sodexo Coalition members participating in the rally outside, said that the meetings the coalition has had with Wise have garnered no results.

“We’ve been meeting, and we’ve been meeting,” Wallach said. “But there’s been no action taken. The fact that it takes a sit-in to get this kind of attention is absurd and ridiculous.”

Katy Lundgren, Kick Out Sodexo Coalition member, said the students participating in the sit-in were supported by a larger group on campus.

“It’s not just this group of students,” Lundgren said. “We’re representing the ASUW resolution that has been passed. We’re representing professors that have written in to show their support for a contract cut with Sodexo. We’re representing a coalition of 17 student groups that support a contract cut. It’s very widely supported in the community and President Wise needs to know that and listen to that.”

Morgan Currier, Kick Out Sodexo coalition organizer, said that in the past two and a half weeks, three other sit-ins have been performed at other universities in protest to Sodexo, but none have resulted in contract cuts. However, Currier was confident in the demonstration yesterday and said she hoped Wise would speak with the students.

“We hope that President Wise won’t make us sit in her office rather than speaking to us,” Currier said. “We hope that instead of arresting us, President Wise will come and have a dialogue with us.”

Currier said that the Kick Out Sodexo Coalition has met with Wise but has not received responses to their demands.

“We’ve had two meetings with her, and we’ve delivered letters to her,” Currier said. “The last letter she sent said, basically, that she’s done talking to us, and she’s trying to place the blame on other administrators, when it’s really her area of power to terminate the contract. She’s really just stopped responding to us lately.”

Norm Arkans, UW associate vice president for media relations and communications, said that the administration has been listening to student concerns all year.

“We’ve been in dialogue with the students for most of the year about this,” Arkans said. “They came to us initially with concerns, complaints and allegations about Sodexo’s behavior, mostly in other parts of the world — not about our contract.”

Arkans said the university has had “no issues” with Sodexo’s performance at the UW.

“[Students] came with allegations about alleged abuses of workers’ rights,” Arkans said. “President Wise wrote to the president of Sodexo North America and told them that our students had these concerns and gave them the opportunity to respond. … He refuted most of the allegations.”

Arkans said that the president of Sodexo offered to set up a meeting between the company and UW students.

“They offered to have Sodexo executives meet with our students,” Arkans said. “We took that to our students and had an extended dialogue about whether they were going to meet with Sodexo executives. … We offered to try to broker such a meeting. Apparently, according to reports yesterday, the students thought it was too late to do that.”

However, Currier said that students have been trying to get that meeting, and the administration hasn’t been helpful.

“We’ve been begging for that meeting since April 19,” Currier said. “They’ve really dragged their feet on making that happen, which shows that they just don’t take it seriously. Frankly, the angry students that are in the conference room right now just couldn’t wait any longer.”

The contract terminates in June 2012, and Arkans said that the university will take bids for the new contract. The university added a section to its Request for Proposal (RFP) form for companies bidding to take over concessions at UW athletic events that includes criteria about companies’ worker’s rights and sustainability measures.

“We did tell the students that because of their concerns about our doing business with companies that exhibit corporate responsibility that in the RFP, we would add a provision that addresses corporate responsibility,” Arkans said. “That was something the students wanted us to do, and we did.”

Intercollegiate Athletics issued an RFP in March, which Arkans said was a little early for a contract that expires a year from June, because the department was hopeful that the company would help to plan the concessions stand in the new stadium. The RFP included the criteria about corporate responsibility.

Godfrey said that the university did not see enough evidence against Sodexo to justify severing its contract with the food vendor.

“The university and the students are quite a ways apart with respect to the factual basis, if any, for severing the contract,” Godfrey said. “Students understandably feel very strongly that evidence exists of labor violations and sweatshop conditions. … My understanding is that, for our part, a lot of thought and review went into it and compelling evidence to support abandoning a contractual agreement that we had was just not there.”

Arkans said the administration doesn’t have enough evidence to make a decision about Sodexo right now.

“It’s hard to sort out who’s right,” Arkans said. “That’s our dilemma: trying to wade in there and figure out what’s the truth. We don’t have enough right now to be able to come to that conclusion definitively, so we’re not going to terminate the contract here.”

The university must give a 90-day notice period before terminating its contract with Sodexo. Arkans said that it would be difficult to do so and be able to have concessions for the first football game of next year.

Currier said the coalition is beyond meetings and action needs to be the next step taken.

“A meeting with Sodexo is not going to accomplish anything,” Currier said. “The only thing that actually forces companies into taking action to remedy labor and human rights violations is by cutting their contracts and showing them there’s no place for them at universities.”

Reach reporters Sarah Schweppe and Lucas Anderson at news@dailyuw.com.

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