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GMU food-service workers strike to protest conditions

Updated at 4:45 p.m. with responses from the university and the food service company.

Several dozen food-service workers at George Mason University went on strike Wednesday to protest working conditions in the dining halls, according to a union release.

Workers "have suffered cuts, burns and broken bones on the job," the release states, and have requested safety measures. The French cafeteria contractor has responded with "retaliation," the release says.

Workers plan to rally at 1:30 this afternoon.

Union officials say one worker had her finger severed on a meat slicer, while another was burned by chicken grease. They contend basic protective equipment such as gloves might have prevented some injuries.

Last week, some students joined workers in delivering a petition to Sodexo management calling for a safer work environment.

Dan Walsch, university spokesman, gave this response:

"Our priority remains that dining services to students, staff, faculty and campus visitors continue without disruption. Even though Sodexo workers are not Mason employees, we do consider them to be part of our internal community and therefore take great interest in helping ensure they are treated fairly and well. Also, we view our partnership with Sodexo to be strong and of vital interest to the success of our institution. Information we receive from students or other interest parties regarding alleged examples of unfair treatment will be brought to Sodexo's attention. As is appropriate, the university is even willing to play an active role in ensuring matters of concern are thoroughly investigated and resolved."

Alfred King, spokesman for Sodexo, said the labor action did not disrupt services to GMU students.

"Contrary to the latest allegations of SEIU's ongoing smear campaign, safety is a key priority for Sodexo," he said in an e-mail. "At George Mason, we have an Employee Safety Committee that meets monthly to listen and discuss ways to eliminate hazards in the workplace, address safety concerns and at-risk behavior, and reward safe work behavior. Training is conducted in three languages, training for every employee is tracked and recorded, and each employee signs a document verifying that they have completed the required training. State of Virginia Occupational Safety and Health inspectors were at our George Mason facilities on Tuesday Sept. 7, and did not note any issues of concern regarding Sodexo's operations."

Matt Painter, spokesman for the union local, said GMU employs about 180 Sodexo workers, who prepare food and work as cashiers and dishwashers.

"Some workers have decades of experience doing food service at the school," he said in an e-mail. "During the last school year, workers earned as little as $8.65 an hour--far below the living wage for Fairfax County wage."

King countered, "Our pay and benefits are among the best in the area for this type of work; the average wage for George Mason employees is $11.32 an hour."

Workers authorized the strike in a series of votes yesterday afternoon.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  September 8, 2010; 10:13 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Labor  | Tags: GMU sodexo, GMU strike, George Mason strike, George Mason workers walk off  
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