Cafeteria opening eases union tensions

Following years of preliminary planning, months of controversy and weeks of construction, the redesigned food court in Smith Center is finished.


The newly renovated food court, run by new food services provider Sodexho, got its first real test Monday as Portland State stirred back to life for fall term.


Just last week the area was a tangle of ladders and paint while Fortis Construction workers raced to fit a massive overhaul into a tiny academic window.


"It’s been hard for anyone to get a cup of coffee around here for awhile," said John Eckman, associate director of Auxiliary Services.


Though some planning began as early as 1999, Eckman said much of the work came after Labor Day to take advantage of the lull between summer and fall quarters.


Controversy erupted last spring when PSU tapped corporate behemoth Sodexho to take over food operations for Aramark when that contract expired. Student groups threatened to boycott the company for their anti-union practices and Aramark employees feared for their jobs.


“It was a huge deal,” said Christina Hartman, a student and former Aramark employee who now works the same Starbucks job under Sodexho. “We didn’t know who these people were. My manager had been there for 10 years and we were afraid our seniority and wages would be lost.”


Hartman, who is active in the workers union, said the company eventually compromised on the strict dress codes that would have disallowed some Aramark employees from reapplying for their jobs. Employees are now barred from what Sodexho considers offensive tattoos or excessively large earrings and workers must wear a hat or hairnet.


After some initial problems with pay rates, Hartman said the transition to Sodexho actually went pretty smoothly.


“I think they’ve spent a lot of money to make things perfect,” she said, adding that Sodexho even brought a Noah’s Bagels employee to California for special training. “Money is not an object for them.”


The company, which oversaw and funded the redesign, bought a new espresso machine to bring the food court’s Starbucks up to the standards of an actual outlet, she said.


Nearby in Smith, PSU expanded the school-run University Market by 300 square feet, updated the registers to improve flow and changed the layout to deter theft.


Eckman said the UM renovations were paid in part by a $96,000 parking loan that the store will pay back in one year.


“The store had become dated,” he said. “It allowed us to bring in some new features.”

Still, not everyone on campus had good things to say about the renovations.


“Unnecessary,” said Emily Blakeslee, communications coordinator with Students For Unity. “A waste of material. A waste of money.”


Though pleased to see Taco Bell gone from the Smith Center, Blakeslee said PSU should not be working with any company boasting a history of racial discrimination and union-busting policies.


Blakeslee said a boycott is still a possibility as Students For Unity reaches out to other student groups. She said SFU will strive to make people aware of Sodexho’s policies while promoting the student-run Food For Thought Cafe as a better option.