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It’s been called everything from a “food factory” to “the ripping apart of Yale’s residential dining.”
But when I first entered Yale Dining’s Culinary Support Center (CSC) in early September, it was just another part of the network of the University dining operations—albeit a shiny, new one.
When the CSC was announced in the summer, its news was largely overshadowed by the closing of Commons for hot breakfast. Plus, the facility’s purpose seemed simple enough: to house the new bakery and catering operations, while also consolidating cold food production to one location.
In other words, rather than preparing the salad bars and deli stations for 5,500 students across 14 different locations, all the dicing, chopping, mixing and slicing would now be done under one roof. And with University president Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak calling on the entire University to help curb Yale’s $39 million dollar budget deficit last year, Yale Dining appeared to have cooked up a solution to the University’s slimming pocketbook.
Executive Director of Yale Dining Rafi Taherian and Director of Culinary Excellence Ron DeSantis met me at the door of the inconspicuous facility at 344 Winchester Avenue, which looked like a normal warehouse. After placing a hairnet on my head and securing my notepad and pen, I followed Yale’s top dining boss and top chef through the inner bellies of the very operation that would now feed Yale’s students.
With each room, there was a new benefit. The new state of the art dishwashers meant that workers wouldn’t be cleaning plates in scalding, steam room conditions. A new food processor meant that the hummus students would be eating was now “smoother” than ever before. A computerized deli slicer would decrease worker injuries from repetitive motion and keep the turkey nice and thin. The storage room and refrigerators contained the finest ingredients: pallets of imported chocolate, extra virgin olive oil from Italy, and wild Alaskan salmon.
“This is a facility for chefs to do what they are passionate about with the right tools and equipment,” DeSantis said. “We are not opening boxes of anything. We’re making it fresh.”
I left the CSC content, stuffed with heirloom tomato burrata salad and warm lemon bars from the bakery.
But despite the glittering façade of brand new stainless steel appliances, I had missed something: a coalition of workers were angry — extremely angry. Some were upset about job security. Some were upset about the direction of Yale Dining’s food. Others were simply unhappy about the new location. But administrators have defended the decision to create the CSC, citing improvements in efficiency and quality. While I couldn’t have known it at the time, in just a few short weeks, the tension between union-backed employees and administrators would heat up.
It all started with a letter. On the morning of Tuesday, September 16th, students and faculty who picked up a copy of the News may have been surprised by something unusual on page 8: a full-page advertisement purchased by Local 35, Yale’s blue-collar union, featuring a photo of Silliman College Chef Stuart Comen accompanied by an open letter. “Dear Students,” the text began, “As chef of Silliman for 31 years, I look forward to students returning to school. But this year, there’s an edge of frustration and disappointment.”
For Comen and the Local 35 Dining Hall team that signed the letter, the CSC had become a nightmare. In their view, rather than providing cold foods for students, it presented a buffet of problems for dining hall workers.
“Yale is giving in to the worst corporate practices, reducing the quality of your meals, disrespecting our staff and depriving a community of opportunity,” Comen wrote. “This is the wrong direction, and undermines the tradition of Yale College dining.”
One dining hall worker, who like all dining hall workers spoke on the condition of anonymity, said administrator gave them no real choice with the CSC — it was either accepting the changes or finding other employment. With families to support, she said this wasn’t a real option.
When I spoke to Comen the day the letter was published, I asked him whether he feared any backlash after speaking out publicly against his bosses and the institution that employed him. He said he knew Taherian and DeSantis would be upset but, “business is business.”
“I am not afraid to speak up if it is the truth, and if it affects my customer I am going to speak up,” Comen added.
But the truth regarding the CSC depends precisely on whom you ask. And here lies the crux of the dispute: the unions have one story, and the University has another.
Dining disputes are nothing new to campus.
For the past century, flaring tensions between Yale Dining workers and University administrators have led to a range of conflicts including a strike in every decade since the 1960s to the 2000s and eight total walkouts between 1968 and 2003.
The source of bitterness has changed from generation to generation; however, the sentiment remains largely the same. A 1996 New York Times’ article, published following a four-week strike in that year, put it best: a Yale Dining dispute “is almost as much a Yale tradition as ‘The Whiffenpoof Song’ and secret societies.”
During a recent 2003 dispute, members of Local 35 — including Yale Dining staff — picketed for 23 days. Workers famously protested on Beinecke plaza by banging pots and pans.
Like prior incidents, the issue revolved around contractual conditions. After multiple rounds of negotiations, Local 35 and the University reached an agreement, compromising on an eight-year contract in return for concessions on pensions.
Since the 2003 bargain was reached, Yale has witnessed a relatively calm front in dining hall relations. The latest contract was forged in 2012 with markedly less acrimony than had been the norm for second half of the 20th century.
“The strikes… occurred many years ago and were very difficult on the employees involved and the University,” University spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in a statement on behalf of Yale Dining.
When asked whether any parallels existed between past experience and today’s growing tension, Conroy did not answer directly. However, he noted that the current contract with Local 35 does not expire until early 2017, and as a result, the union is prohibited from being able to strike until then.
Even if Local 35 doesn’t have the legal right to strike, they have expressed their outrage in other ways.
On the Wednesday following the publication of Comen’s letter to students, Local 35 added fuel to the fire: The union filed a legal complaint against the University with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And with a few pieces of paperwork, a mere food fight became much more than that.
But Comen’s letter wasn’t just about labor. The elimination of the head pantry worker position merited a mere few sentences in a nine paragraph plea, and the remainder focused on the poor quality of food at the CSC.
The only part of the letter signed by the entire Local 35 dining hall team was a box of bolded text at the bottom.
“We are fighting to restore the standard of high quality food that you deserve,” it read. “We sincerely apologize if you find any of your means unsatisfying.” No mention of job security—Local 35 framed the debate over the CSC in terms of food.
The day after I first interviewed Comen, he texted telling me to try the cauliflower salad in the dining halls that day.
“It’s horrible looking and tasting and that’s why I’m speaking up,” the message read.
But when asked whether he knew about the NLRB complaint the Union had filled on the same day, he said he was unaware.
Some workers worry that delicate items such as roasted vegetables and compound salads will not transport well from the CSC to dining halls. As a result, they say, students may now face soggy potatoes or unevenly tossed couscous.
One dining hall worker explained that while there may be greater consistency among the dining halls under a centralized model, it comes at a cost.
“The food is disgusting,” she said. “It is the same repetitious stuff, you have ham and turkey every single day. You used to have differences — salami, smoked turkey, bologna and liverwurst.”
The head pantry worker contacted at Conroy’s recommendation disagreed, noting that the greater equality among the dining halls has improved the food’s overall taste. However, she feared the products leaving the facility may be different than what arrives in dining halls.
“Right now we don’t know who is handling it at the other end, draining the juice when it comes—are they mixing the product right?” she said.
One head pantry worker explained that the CSC was meant to use fresher ingredients. But, she said, standards have regressed.
While things like dressings are still handmade, she said they are now produced in plastic bags and on eight times the scale as previously.
“We used to have such high standards,” she said of Yale Dining. “We changed the whole concept of [college] dining, now we have gone back.”
However, DeSantis was quick to dismiss the union claim that the CSC had was a “food factory.” He argued that a food factory does not bring in pallets of fresh ingredients daily, does not purchase 49 percent of its produce regionally and does not prepare foods that are “handcrafted with care.” In fact, DeSantis said, the center was created in response to student feedback.
He said the scaling up has had no impact on the final product served since rather than one person working on a salad, there is now a team.
“The food that we prepare is food I would serve anywhere — believe me,” DeSantis said.
Despite the Union’s claims that the food quality has decreased—the claim they used to frame the issue in Comen’s letter and in the note from Local 35—students have noticed little difference in the quality of the food. If anything, they say, it has improved.
“The food this year has been pretty good,” Amelie Thouvenot ’17 said. She described the selections as consistently fresh and “completely fine.”
Jiou Yu ’16 said he the quality of the deli bar has stayed consistent between last year and this year. He joins the 17 other students out of 25 surveyed who noticed no difference in the deli bar’s quality.
“This year has gotten a lot better. There is edamame in the salad bar, not like in the past” Libby Henry ’17 said. “Since I am a vegan, what I eat is a lot of the cold food and it’s definitely improved.”
Henry is not alone. Eleven students out of 25 surveyed noted an improvement in the salad bar, with an additional 11 seeing no difference at all.
David Roeca ’15 said the CSC has most likely improved the efficiency of the dining halls. However, he feared there might be less creative control as a result.
Still, only two students out of seven interviewed were aware of the CSC’s existence—let alone any related drama.
Which raises questions of what the real issue is with the CSC. If students don’t mind the food, then why are workers angry?
The answer can be found in the NLRB complaint, the first such action since 2011. While decrying food quality may grab more readers’ attention, this isn’t the only issue at stake.
Local 35 President Bob Proto said that the complaint raises two grievances: that Yale violated its contract with the union by relocating jobs without proper negotiation, and that it then failed to provide the union with information pertaining to the CSC.
But University Spokesman Tom Conroy sees no problem with the transfers.
Conroy dismissed the NLRB complaint as a tactic that has been employed in the past whenever the unions are upset about a decision. He added that the accusations are without merit since the University discussed the relocations with the Union before the opening of the CSC.
But workers worry that buzzwords like “centralization,” which is what the University has called the relocations, are a smokescreen for a plan to phase out jobs as workers retire or the contract expires.
Proto noted the most vulnerable workers were those in the position of head pantry worker. These workers, who had previously overseen cold food preparation in the colleges, have seen their jobs moved from the individual residential dining halls to the centralized location.
This seems innocent enough at first. But an anonymous worker in Yale Catering said there is simply not enough space in the CSC to accommodate these relocated workers. He said he takes this to imply that some jobs will eventually disappear.
Conroy reaffirmed that no Local 35 employees had lost their jobs, or had had their pay or hours cut. But he did not deny that the workforce may change in the future.
“The position of head pantry [worker] has not been eliminated from Yale Dining,” he said. “But it is the case that there likely will be fewer of them in the future. If the work is no longer needed, the position is not filled — that is attrition.”
But job security isn’t the only issue: workers have taken the move as a personal slight.
“I used to work in a dining hall,” said a head pantry worker. “Now I work in the factory.”
Another worker called the move “devastating.”
These experiences and others suggest that morale is low among employees working at the CSC. Pantry workers feel they have lost the communities they built among the teams in the residential dining halls. The relocation also meant that positions in the college dining halls had to be reshuffled, and some workers there say they had to choose a new job during a mere ten-minute window of time.
But for DeSantis, the Director of Culinary Excellence, the idea of flagging morale could not be further from the truth.
“I see professionals, dedicated and really good culinarians, working as a very good team and with a lot of great personalities,” he said. “No matter what day of the week it is, someone is going to wake up and not be happy.”
Conroy conceded that changes in the workplace can be difficult for some employees, especially those who may prefer the old arrangement. He said Yale Dining has made it a priority to create team-building exercises and have regular meetings with staff.
“Many of the Head Pantry Workers have told us that they are excited about the new team environment at the CSC and the opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art facility with highly skilled chefs,” he said.
Undermining the Local 35 narrative that all workers were irate, a head pantry worker contacted at Conroy’s recommendation said she was largely okay with the changes to the system.
“I don’t have a problem [with the CSC],” she said. “It’s more work than I did before, but I have a bigger team to help.”
When asked why people were so outspoken against the center if it largely requires the same amount of effort, she said it came down to pride.
Some head pantry workers back in the residential college unit had a sense of importance, she said. But in the CSC, all head pantry workers do the same work.
“These people have been in dining halls for years and it’s a change for them,” a dining worker still in the college said. “It is like, excuse my French, taking breast milk from a baby and giving them a bottle.”
America loves a good kitchen showdown. We can’t help but eat up shows like “Iron Chef” and “Cupcake Wars.” Sometimes, a food fight is just too delicious to pass up.
But there’s nothing savory about the dispute over the CSC. There is no clichéd image of spaghetti being thrown or mashed potato being flicked. It’s a food fight in the most literal sense of the word — a fight over how Yale students should be fed. And yet, the solution may come down to something as simple as table manners: speaking and being a good listener in turn.
“There could be stronger communication between the two sides,” a catering worker said. DeSantis also urged further dialogue among all parties. He added he would welcome sitting down with dining workers to discuss changes to CSC at any time.
When asked what the long term solution could be, Comen was also more optimistic than some of his previous comments suggested.
“If the CSC in the next two months looks good and it looks like something our customers should get, I have no problem coming back to the newspaper and saying that it has improved,” Comen said. “But at this point I don’t think my customers are getting what they deserve and that is the bottom line.”
One dining hall worker summed up the most likely outcome in the near future: both sides waiting it out. She said the migration to the CSC was like buying a new pair of shoes; if after five wears they still don’t fit, then maybe it’s time to return them.
With time, a solution may be possible. But it will be up to both sides to come to the table.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the version that appeared in print on Friday, October 3.