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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Dining negotiations remain stagnant, union leaders struggle amid understaffing

Students stand in line at All-Star Deli located at Stevenson Dining. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 963 chapter is negotiating for higher starting wages and longevity pay. (Northern Star file photo)

DeKALB – NIU’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 963 chapter saw no movement at the last negotiations for higher wages as unrest extends the negotiations for a bargaining agreement that expired in June 2023.

The AFSCME Local 963 is the union representing NIU’s building and food service workers, which includes custodial staff, cooks and employees at NIU’s Lorado Taft Field Campus.

Jason Williams, vice president of AFSCME Local 963, said dining staff are looking for two main objectives: higher starting wages and the opportunity for longevity pay.

“We want the starting wages to be higher, and we also are requesting longevity pay for our members that have been here for 15 to 20 years,” Williams said. “With the minimum wage going up and, you know, all that, we’re looking for fair wages for all of our members, not just the ones who haven’t been hired yet.”

The previous contract, enacted in 2015, set the lowest salary of a kitchen helper at $12 per hour, compared to the minimum wage of $8.25 at the time.

Patrick Sheridan, president of AFSCME Local 963, said NIU plans to increase the position to $16 per hour, which staggers compared to the rising minimum wage of $15 expected in Illinois next year.

Williams and Sheridan attended the dining contract negotiation on April 5, accompanied by several members of the union. After about an hour and a half, Williams said he walked out discouraged.

“To be honest, I didn’t see much movement from the last session to the next,” Williams said. “They made no movement on wages, they’re still trying to get forced overtime. They’re just not really looking at the big picture, it doesn’t look like it. I don’t know, they’re being difficult for sure.”


The argument for a wage increase comes from a severe understaffing of dining service employees, according to Sheridan.

“I believe we had roughly somewhere between 80 and 90 employees right before COVID, and now it’s like 30-32, somewhere like there,” Sheridan said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected the food industry, Sheridan said the solution to a lack of employees interested in working at restaurants and businesses has been solved by increasing salaries.

In addition to dining staff, students can be employed as dining student team members and work alongside hired dining employees to prepare and serve food. The starting wage for student workers is $14 per hour, according to the Campus Dining Services website.

To make up for the understaffing, more student employees have been brought on, but Sheridan said a lack of training came along with it.

“I think it was around 2016-2017 that (the training) slowly started phasing out, all of the training in general,” Sheridan said.

Sheridan said the lack of training is to blame for when he had to file a safety grievance and an Occupational Safety and Health Act complaint when a dishwasher burned workers’ hands with chemicals that were improperly hooked up to the sink used for washing dishes.

Sheridan said he blamed dining management for “refusing to institute an actual training program for student employees and a lack of actual supervision for student employees,” in an email to Jesse Perez, NIU’s director of employee and labor relations.

“You don’t want to see your employees getting hurt, you don’t want to see your co-workers getting hurt,” Sheridan said.


The proposed new contract for dining staff argues for longevity pay, where workers are given an increase in salaries once they reach a year milestone in their occupations.

Tina Montavon, a culinary worker for Campus Dining Services, attended the Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 7, 2023, with many other members of the union to voice frustrations over a lack of competitive pay to NIU officials. Montavon said that despite her five years of service, she was only being paid “a few cents more” than incoming dining workers.

When she applied for culinary position two, Montavon said the promotion lost her seniority which recorded her five years of experience and would have made her eligible for a higher salary.

“All that experience didn’t count; I had to start over,” Montavon said.

Despite the frustrations, Williams said most dining staff who have worked at NIU for more than two years have a loyalty to the campus and the students.

“I’m doing something to help the community, you know, I’m not just cooking for a bunch of people that want to go out and have a good time, like, they’re (NIU students) here to learn, they’re here to do better, they’re here to make changes within their community and I get the honor of feeding them,” Williams said.

Both union leaders are expecting better outcomes at the next negotiations on April 30.

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