Dining hall workers to protest Commons closure

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Photo by Clinton Wang.

Frustrated staff from Yale’s dining halls and members of the Local 35 union voiced complaints over the termination of Commons’ dinner hours at a Monday panel discussion and will hold a protest this Friday to coincide with the start of Parents’ Weekend.

With the University’s largest dining hall now closed nights, the influx of students who must now eat dinner in residential college dining halls is pushing the system beyond the capacity of the current staff, dining staff and Local 35 members said. College chefs and workers cited longer lines and more crowded seating during peak eating times as evidence of the jump in student demand at residential college dining halls. They said the added stress makes for an unhealthy working environment and prevents dining hall employees from doing their jobs effectively.

“This is really tough for dining halls and students who are waiting through really long lines,” Silliman head chef Stuart Comen said. “It’s taxing the system and the workers are getting frustrated — we need to get Commons back open.”

Students and dining hall workers are planning a “speakout” on the issue at the corner of College and Elm Streets this Friday. Fliers for the event, which organizers handed out at the Monday panel in the Silliman College common room, said “Stand up for Yale tradition, real food and real jobs.

Local 35 represents Yale maintenance, food service and custodial workers. The union is part of the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, a coalition of labor unions in New Haven that serves thousands of workers at the University and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Ten dining hall staff and Local 35 members at the panel were unanimous in voicing their concerns regarding the new Commons hours, but Regenia Phillips, Yale Dining’s director of residential dining, said the complaint that dining halls are taxed beyond the capacity of their current staff is “untrue.” She pointed out that although demand for food at the Morse and Stiles dining halls outpaced supply earlier in the fall, college masters mitigated the situation by putting restrictions on transfers from other colleges.

“The fall semester is always very busy, and some days will be busier than others,” she said. “But students settle into a routine.”

Aside from complaints of a spike in residential college dining demand, dining hall workers and union members also expressed concern over the process by which administrators chose to close Commons. Dining hall staff criticized what they called “top-down” decision-making, saying they were told about Commons only after the decision had been made.

“When you’re building a foundation, you have to start from the bottom, not the top,” Patricia James, a Jonathan Edwards College dining hall worker, said. “They should have asked us what we thought — at least we would have felt like we were important and a part of this.”

Phillips said the decision to close Commons was made by the upper echelons of the University administration, but that she did not know exactly who had final say.

Jeanette Norton, deputy director of Yale Dining, said in an interview with the News in May that Commons was opened for dinner to accommodate students living in Swing Space, and keeping Commons open is financially unfeasible with the completion of the residential college renovations and 12 other college dining halls in operation.

Meg Riccio, chief steward for Local 35 and former Yale dining hall worker, said she believes dining hall staff could have cooperated with administrators and “easily” come up with the cost savings equal to those from closing Commons for dinner.

Students, about 10 of whom attended the Monday panel discussion, have also voiced their concerns of the closure of Commons’s dinner. Over 800 undergraduates joined a “Save Commons dinner” Facebook group in May, protesting the University’s decision. At the time, many students said that having dinner in Commons is a Yale tradition, and the hall’s large tables are important for groups trying to meet over a meal.

According to Yale Dining’s records for the last academic year, an average of 41 students swiped into Commons between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., with 29 of those swiping in before 8:30 p.m. By contrast, about 523 students swiped in between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and another 221 on average swiped in between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

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