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The Bruno Brief: Why students are protesting dining hall conditions

Brown students poured onto the Main Green Oct. 21 to protest the working conditions of Brown Dining Services workers following Herald reporting bringing light to conditions inside the University’s dining halls. We spoke to Senior Staff Writers Peter Swope ’24 and Will Kubzansky ’24 about their coverage of the protest and initial story, respectively.

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Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

On the evening of Oct. 21, over 100 students gathered at the center of Brown’s campus. They came to protest poor conditions for workers in Brown Dining Services, which was previously detailed in The Herald. They called upon the University’s highest governing body, the Corporation, to invest more in supporting its workers. The following day, we talked with Senior Staff Writers Peter Swope and Will Kubzansky. Here's the show.

Peter, welcome to The Bruno Brief. Can you introduce yourself to the listeners?

Peter Swope  

Hi, thank you so much for having me on. I'm Peter Swope, Class of 2024. And I'm a Senior Staff Writer for sports and U. news. 

Corey Gelb-Bicknell  

Tell us about this protest. What led up to it?

Peter Swope  

It really goes back to Will Kubzansky's article detailing the conditions dining hall workers face. In the aftermath of that article, there have been a lot of different student responses. This protest was organized by a group called Better Brown Now. What they had wanted to do was find a way to capture the attention of the Corporation. So they settled on a sit-in.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell   

Here’s Zoë Fuad ’23.5, one of the organizers of the protest.

Zoe Fuad  

That final BDH article was really just the straw that broke the camel's back. This anger has been building up all summer. I think students just really want to say something. And all we're doing really is creating an opportunity to do so.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

Let’s look back to the original Herald article about working conditions in Brown Dining Services. Will Kubzansky broke that story earlier this month.

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Will, thanks so much for joining us on the show.

Will Kubzansky   

Thanks for having me.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell  1:19  

On Oct. 3, your story about Brown Dining Services sparked a lot of uproar on campus. Can you describe what your reporting process for the story was like, and can you tell us what that story was about?

Will Kubzansky  1:28  

Yeah, sure. All this started when Brown shifted to exclusively takeout dining for a bit as part of its broader COVID restrictions. And so my idea was, 'Hey, let's go into the dining halls and talk to some folks about what has the shift to Grab-and-Go looked like. The answer I basically got was, 'The Grab-and-Go thing was fine, but we've been systemically understaffed for the entire semester so far.' They did not have the amount of people that they felt like they needed to have to do their job. They felt like the equipment and the infrastructure around them was not functioning the way it should, and that the efforts to replace it were lagging. They felt like the efforts to add staff were lagging. So just this disconnect of needs versus what they actually had.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell  2:03  

You interviewed twelve anonymous staffers working at Brown Dining Services for this story. That's a lot of people. When the story did come out, how did the University respond? 

Will Kubzansky  2:11  

We had a long list of claims that we had put together over the course of reporting the story. We sent a list of questions to George Barboza, the vice president of dining services, and he sent us back responses to some of the questions but not all the questions, then basically didn't hear anything for another three weeks, until yesterday when Barboza published an op-ed in The Brown Daily Herald, and this morning, when I talked to him to get some more context. When I'm talking about today, I mean, Friday, Oct. 22. When I'm talking about yesterday, I mean, Thursday, Oct. 21. 

The op-ed basically comes down to: Brown Dining Services does not publish intensely what it's doing, but here's some stuff that we're doing that, “Hey, we think you might want to know about.” They are talking about how they invested $300,000 in equipment. Part of the op-ed was, “We're gonna renovate the V-Dub.” The fridge and freezer in the V-dub are really small. You know, I got to walk in. The renovations are gonna upgrade the fridge in the freezer, renovations are gonna change the front facing stations, they are gonna add more seating for students. And then he talked largely about staffing. As of, I believe next week, they say that 93% of the bargaining unit positions, which means 93% of the unionized full-time workforce, is going to be full. He didn't provide any context about what that number was at the beginning of the semester, or even a couple of weeks ago. And then he had this large section devoted to what he called “countering misinformation,” right. The workers in the initial dining hall story said, “When there's an open position, it takes them two months to fill it.” And he said, like, “Yeah, there have been a couple of positions where it's taken us two months to find someone. But the actual process from application to someone's first day is two weeks.” He claimed that HR has really expedited the process of getting people into the dining halls to serve the students. 

And then the thing that Barboza really tries to emphasize in the story is that, in his view, Brown Dining Services does care deeply about its workers. I don't have numbers to back this up. But he notes that Brown Dining Services leads the food industry in Rhode Island in pay, that they didn't fire anyone during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is true. So, offering some context about how the University treats its workers. In the interview this morning, the crux of that, for me, was trying to figure out how much of this was already in the works. Most of it, it seems like, had been in the works for a while. Some of it was proposed in late 2019, early 2020, and then they hit the pause button on it for COVID. But it was always Brown Dining Services’ intention, if you believe Barboza, to fill all of its positions as fast as it could. It was always their intention to get as much equipment and get new equipment as they reasonably could. The one thing that he said was the announcement of the V-Dub being renovated was expedited. 

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

So, we also know that the current Brown Dining Services union contract will expire on Nov. 1. Do you think that this pressure on the University is gonna give leverage to the union? 

Will Kubzansky   

I think it's important to establish that Brown Dining Services did not reach out to The Brown Daily Herald when I started reporting the story. I didn't have the context of “Oh, hey, the union contracts are about to expire,” right? So the story wasn't initially done in the context of the union. And when I talked to workers, the thing that came up over and over was not like, “Yeah, the new union contracts are gonna be the thing that saves us.” It's, “student pressure always makes things better.” So I don't know, if I'm being entirely honest, what effect our reporting, what effect the pressure from students, is going to have on the union negotiations, but it can't hurt. When you've got however many hundreds of kids in front of Friedman Hall, they obviously realize that they have a very willing and very dedicated student body to back them up. 

Corey Gelb-Bicknell   

Will, thank you so much for joining us on the show.

Will Kubzansky  

Thank you so much for having me.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell  

Let’s get a clearer picture of what student pressure has looked like since the story broke. Peter, can you describe what you saw at the protest on Thursday?  

Peter Swope  

The plan of the sit-in was to actually enter Friedman at about 6 p.m.. By the time it got to 5:50-ish, the hill in front of Friedman under the semicircle sidewalk was completely filled up with students. 

Peter Swope   

It was certainly well attended, and it kept growing. The main theme was essentially that Brown and the Corporation do not care about the people here and are more focused on profits.

Protesters  

Brown, can you hear us? CPax, can you hear us? Corporation, can you hear us? Brown … 

Peter Swope

At a different point someone who appeared to be a Corporation member did enter Friedman Hall and was met with a huge showering of boos.

Protestors

[Booing]

Corey Gelb-Bicknell   

To clarify, the shower of boos being chants of disapproval, not a shower of champagne.

Peter Swope   

Yes.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell   

Okay, okay. Got it.  

Peter Swope  

It was around that point that some of the organizers received word that the Corporation had moved to Bacaro, which is an Italian restaurant down on South Water Street by the river. This was at approximately 6:15, which was about when the protest was scheduled to end. 

Peter Swope

This is much more involved than I thought, it was kind of amazing. 

Peter Swope

They ended up across from Bacaro in a field in Gardner Jackson Park. And from that point on, there were chants calling for better wages, for acknowledgement of conditions. And some were even calling for CPax to resign.

Protesters

Say it loud, say it clear, we want fair wages here. Say it loud, say it clear, we want fair wages here. Say it loud, say it clear, we want fair wages … 

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

How did the organizers feel about the protest?

Peter Swope 

They were very happy with the turnout. They seemed grateful that lots of students had attended. But they were very disappointed with how the Corporation had responded.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell   

Here's Jada Wooten ’24, who attended the protest.

Jada Wooten

I went in with my head thinking that we'll use the sit-in. It will be a starting point for the conversations. It was kind of clear (Corporation members) didn't want to engage with us when we didn't see a lot of Corporation members coming in the main door where the sit-in is. I think I just really wanted to be heard. And I really kind of want to disrupt the conversations since they weren't willing to engage in conversation with us. 

Corey Gelb-Bicknell  

So there's, in general, a lot of student activism on campus. But what about this issue has drawn so much attention so quickly? 

Peter Swope  

These dining hall workers are people that we interact with every day and that are so present in our lives. And I believe that a lot of Brown students really care about them and want the best for the members of the Brown community, and that includes the staff. And to hear about the hardships they were facing, I believe, for a lot of Brown students just really spurred them to action. Student groups seem to be very involved with this issue, so I suspect that this is not the end.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell 

Here's Isabella Garo ’24, who attended the protest.

Isabella Garo  

I come from a Latino working class family. I busted ass to get into this school. And I was told supposedly, allegedly, that Brown University was an institution that fought for people like me, from my community. So to get to Brown and see the dining staff who are largely Latino and Black, like myself, being overworked and underpaid was just like a huge slap in the face.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell  

Peter, thank you so much for joining us on the show. 

Peter Swope  

Of course, thanks so much for having me.

Corey Gelb-Bicknell

This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Ben Glickman, Max Karpawich, Katy Pickens and me, Corey Gelb-Bicknell. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.  

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

This episode was produced by Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich and Katy Pickens. 

Music:

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Heath by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Ecstasy of Clay by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)



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