MIT Student Worker Alliance organizes virtual rally for dining hall workers

Chief shop steward Sims’ final warning removed by Bon Appetit prior to rally

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A dining worker in McCormick’s dining hall serves students.

The MIT Student Worker Alliance held a virtual rally Monday in support of workers at MIT’s dining halls. 

The rally came after Mark Sims, chief shop steward of MIT’s dining hall workers’ union and McCormick Hall cook, received a final warning from Bon Appetit management, which used racially stereotyped terms to describe Sims, after Sims brought up the concerns of a fellow worker.

The hour-long rally, held over Zoom, started at 6 p.m. and saw nearly 150 attendees, including students, staff, and faculty. The rally began with a series of student and dining worker speakers and ended in breakout rooms where students and workers discussed their experiences with racial discrimination or harassment at MIT.

The student organizers of the rally were Fiona Chen ’21, Yara Komaiha ’21, Danielle Geathers ’22, Faduma Khalif ’22, Ki-Jana Carter G, and Lucky Pattanaik G.

Chen wrote in an email to The Tech on behalf of the organizers that they were “incredibly excited and energized by the number of students” who attended the rally and felt that the event “really showed the power of building solidarity between students, staff, and faculty, and using public pressure to effectuate change at MIT.”

She added that the organizers hope to “continue to build on this momentum” to support dining workers and other MIT employees in the future.

Speakers at the rally included Sims, McCormick cook Rabindra Rajbanshi, Carter, former McCormick co-president Afeefah Khazi-Syed ’21, New Vassar cook Radames Moran, and Bon Appetit catering driver Said Kouhail.

Rally attendees showed their support for speakers through messages in the chat and audible applause and cheers between speakers. Additionally, Husayn Karimi ’19 led attendees in a call and response chant of “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do?”, “Stand up, fight back.”

Sims said at the rally that the retaliation against him is “unacceptable” because it prevented him from speaking up for other workers. The discipline was removed from Sims’ file earlier on Monday, an action that he described as “convenient” for Bon Appetit.

Sims also said that as chief shop steward and representative for the union, he advocates for workers in situations where “a person of color gets disciplined for the same things that a person not of color” is not disciplined for and makes sure that the work environment for dining hall staff is “safe and comfortable.”

Sims thanked attendees of the rally for their support and for coming together so that “things are made right.” He said that he will continue to represent and speak for “what is just and right.”

Carter said that the discipline against Sims “failed because of the strength of the dining workers union and because all these students showed solidarity by organizing and attending this rally.”

He also said that the “issues facing dining hall workers at MIT are not disconnected from the issues” facing undergraduates and graduate students, mentioning the Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment campaign, a coalition of student groups that organize to fight racism and sexism at MIT. 

“If we allow racism … [and] anti-worker practice to go unchecked in dining halls, then you can’t be surprised when the same actions show up” in labs or classrooms, Carter said.

Rajbanshi, Moran, and Kouhail also emphasized the need for students and workers to “stick together” to demand better treatment for workers.

Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson wrote in an email to The Tech that while MIT is not able to comment on “individual personnel matters” of Bon Appetit and Local 26, it expresses “clearly to all vendors that the fair treatment of those working” at MIT is a “top priority.”

She wrote that MIT is aware of the concerns from students over Sims’ discipline and is planning to meet with student leaders to discuss these concerns to “foster a productive dialogue” between students, Bon Appetit, and the Division of Student Life (DSL) and to “strengthen our community for all those who engage with dining and residential life.” 

Chen wrote that the Student Worker Alliance is “exploring … ways that MIT could play a role in improving the working conditions for all of the dining workers” by posing questions such as how DSL can be more informed about mistreatment of dining hall workers and whether it would be beneficial for MIT to set up conflict resolution or anti-dscrimination mechanisms for dining hall workers.

Nelson added that “it is important to MIT, and to me personally, that we actively promote… safe, respectful, diverse, equitable, and affirming” work environments and that MIT’s contract with Bon Appetit “stipulates” that Bon Appetit take steps to achieve this, including participating in diversity, equity, and inclusion and harassment prevention training and having a fair treatment policy and a hotline where incidents may be reported.

The MIT Student Worker Alliance also previously advocated for dining hall workers’ rights at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.