In 2012, Northeastern University dining hall workers made $9 an hour: “poverty jobs,” according to the union that organized the workforce that year.
Wages have been rising steadily since, and following a vote to approve a new contract on Tuesday, those food service employees will see their wages increase to roughly $30 an hour in 2026 — tripling their pay in a span of 14 years.
The agreement is the most lucrative contract in the history of Unite Here Local 26. Along with a $9.32 per hour pay hike for each of the 400-plus dining hall workers over the next four years, improvements include making at least three-quarters of the staff full time, quadrupling pension plan contributions, and guaranteeing coverage when someone calls in sick.
“Anything we’ve negotiated [before], it completely blows away,” said Carlos Aramayo,president of Local 26, which has more than 90 contracts representing 12,000 hospitality and food service workers at hotels, universities, convention centers, casinos, and airports in Greater Boston and Rhode Island. “It’s really extraordinary.”
These poverty jobs have become family-sustaining ones, he said.
Chartwells Higher Ed, the Compass Group food-service vendor that employs Northeastern’s dining hall workers, did not respond to a request for comment.
Thomas Gross has worked for Chartwells for 18 years, first at Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he was making $10 an hour before going to Northeastern in 2014 for a few dollars more an hour. Under the new agreement, Gross will be making about $22.65 an hour, with raises every six months putting him at $30.97 an hour in four years. (Wentworth’s dining workers are now Local 26 members making around $20 an hour).
The increase will help Gross, 40, pay rent for the Roxbury apartment he’s shared with his mother, uncle, and brother since they lost their family home to foreclosure in 2017. He can also better afford to call an Uber for his mother, a retired hospital worker who has difficulty walking, and maybe even take his nieces and nephews to the movies once in a while.
“I actually have some money in my pocket,” said Gross, who was part of the union bargaining committee. “I’m able to help out more with the family, and I couldn’t before.”
According to a Local 26 survey in February, more than two-thirds of Northeastern dining hall workers rely on housing assistance, had difficulties managing their health due to health care costs, or struggled with food insecurity in the past year.
Not long ago, the gold standard was $15 an hour, said Thomas Juravich, a labor studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now it’s been pushed to $30, which will help more people afford to live in a high-cost city like Boston.
“That kind of fairness and dignity allows you to have a life and live a life. And those who work in hotels and cafeterias should be able to have those lives too, not just professionals,” Juravich said.
With the “perfect storm” of the COVID crisis, low unemployment, and inflation, coupled with workers rising up and demanding more, employers in growing industries such as hospitality and health care need to realize they have to provide better pay and benefits in order to survive, he said. Food service jobs are notoriously low-paid with unreliable hours, and people who might have settled for them in the past can now go work for companies like Amazon and FedEx, both of which have improved pay and benefits during the pandemic.
“This is what many of us hoped would begin to happen,” Juravich said of the Northeastern contract. “Fifty years ago, auto workers’ jobs weren’t any good either. ... And we watched through unionization as these jobs became better. And they became stable, good paying, safe jobs.”
Wages have been rising at a faster clip over the past two years, according to a Salary.com survey of more than 1,000 employers in June. Standard 3 percent annual raises are being replaced by 4 percent raises, and nearly half of US employers are planning higher pay bumps in 2023 than they gave this year.
At Northeastern, food service pay will go up roughly 7 to 10 percent a year in the first few years of the contract, and will soon match what Local 26 dining hall employees make at Harvard and MIT.
But rising wages are only part of the equation. Workers also insisted on two provisions that had never been included in a Local 26 contract, Aramayo said: Guaranteeing that employees who call out sick are replaced by another worker, a demand that came out of the severe labor shortage during the pandemic as employees were facing heavier workloads, longer hours, and fewer breaks. And making 75 percent of workers full time, up from 60 percent currently, at 40 hours a week instead of 37.5.
Those who remain part time only have to work 20 hours a week, instead of 30, to qualify for union health insurance. Improving hours and access to benefits is crucial as pay rises, Aramayo noted, which might make some workers ineligible for MassHealth or other assistance.
Aramayo credits the Northeastern workers, some of whom have been on the job since the union campaign began in 2012, with being clear about what they wanted and being determined to get there.
“If a group of workers decide to organize and are really, really determined and don’t give up,” he said, “you can get there.”