Students, staff protest overcrowded dining halls

Disgruntled Yale dining hall workers, Local 35 union members and students will hold a “speak-out” this afternoon to protest the termination of Commons dinner hours.

With Commons Dining Hall now closed after 2:30 p.m., dining staff and Local 35 union members said the influx of students eating dinner in residential college dining halls is straining the system beyond its capacity — hurting the dinner experience for students and creating an unhealthy working environment for staff. Students and staff planned the protest to decry what they call the end of a Yale tradition, an inconvenience for students and a burden for workers. Morse College Master Frank Keil, chair of the Council of Masters, said it has not yet been determined whether the closing of Commons has been a success or a failure.

“We all need to collect more data to determine how bad the crowding problems are,” Keil said. “Then we can see if it is really something we need to change back or if it is ok.”

Keil, who said he was not involved with the decision-making process, said that the financial burdens of keeping Commons open “were not favorable in these economic times.” He added that there is not enough data yet from the Commons “experiment” to determine whether the decision was the right one. Last spring, he said, when all of Yale’s residential colleges had finished renovations, it looked as if the 12 college dining halls could handle the capacity.

Yale administrators announced the decision to end dinner hours in Commons, which served over 750 students per night on average, at the end of last spring to save costs. Soon after the announcement, over 1,000 students signed a petition against the reduced hours that they presented to the Yale administration in May. Dining hall workers and members of Local 35 — the union representing Yale maintenance, food service and custodial workers — said they began to feel the burden of the change this fall, and held a panel discussion on Monday to air their frustrations and plan today’s protest.

“This protest is definitely important,” said Patricia James, a Jonathan Edwards dining hall worker. “We now have people who have to eat standing up because all the seats are full, and some nights we’ve run out of dishes — this never used to happen last year.”

A Facebook page advertising the protest and telling viewers to “stand up for Yale tradition, real food and real jobs” had 44 attendees at press time. Rachel Payne ’12, the page’s creator and a student organizer for the protest, said that while no official student group is hosting the event, the student leaders involved all “really care about food and the workers’ experience.” She added that organizers have been circulating emails about the event to athletes, who often eat as large groups of teammates at Commons’ long tables, and other student organizations.

Payne said students and dining hall workers will meet on the corner of College and Elm Streets for the start of the protest. At 1:15 p.m., the group will walk to an “undisclosed location” where students and workers will speak out about their thoughts on the closing of Commons for dinner.

In addition to the stress on workers and inconvenience for students, a key criticism from protesters has been the administration’s “top-down” decision-making. Payne said she thinks that the lack of student input in the decision will be a key theme at the speak-out, and dining hall workers agree.

“The administration didn’t ask us about this, not that they had to, but they didn’t even inform us until after the fact,” said Michelle Taylor, a Silliman dining hall worker. “This will be helpful to voice our opinions.”

James said she estimated 10 to 15 percent of Yale’s dining hall staff would go to the protest, but added that work shifts may prevent some from participating.

Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle deferred comment about Commons’ closure to Ernie Huff, director of student and faculty administrative services. Huff did not respond to a request for comment.

The Local 35 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.

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