Outside the shiny Cambridge offices of the social-media behemoth Meta, in the heart of high-tech Kendall Square, an old-fashioned worker dispute is brewing.
When Meta’s cafeteria workers joined the union Unite Here Local 26 in the summer of 2022, they thought their troubles were over, or at least alleviated. Wages went up by $4 an hour for many of the two dozen employees. Jobs felt more secure.
But last month, when a new contractor started operating the tech giant’s dining facility, it announced it was throwing out the existing union contract and planned to negotiate a new one from scratch. The new employer, the Israeli food service provider Yarzin Sella, stopped contributing to the workers’ pension plans and instituted a new attendance policy that penalized workers for being late or missing shifts.
This failure to honor an existing contract is unprecedented among the 50 or so food-service collective bargaining agreements Local 26 has in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said union president Carlos Aramayo. When a contract changes hands, new employers often request administrative changes but have never tried to alter basic employment conditions. But given the rising number of companies consolidating and outsourcing services, Local 26 has started bargaining for assumption agreements, which compel new contractors to recognize agreements that are already in place.
“If we’re going to try to be fair to workers, to value workers for the work that they do, and the wealth that they’re producing for companies, you need to respect the terms and conditions of folks’ labor,” Aramayo said. “These giant companies, often backed by huge financial concerns, think they can just walk in and dictate terms to people left, right, and center. And what do you end up with? You end up with a massively increasing wealth gap, and … downward pressure on real wages.”
The union is considering filing unfair labor practice charges against Yarzin Sella for changing workers’ terms of employment in violation of federal labor law, and workers have been holding protests in front of the Meta building in Kendall Square. The uncertainty about what will become of their pay and their jobs is making employees nervous, said line cook John West.
“With the union, there was a safety net, that job security in kind of a crazy time, especially in this industry after the pandemic, and that’s not there anymore,” he said.
Yarzin Sella and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, did not reply to requests for comment. Yarzin Sella, which is based in Tel Aviv, specializes in high-end food service for “high-tech companies seeking to have a restaurant DNA,” according to its website, and has established “dozens of restaurants located in offices of leading global companies.”
Meta, which reported $34 billion in revenue in the third quarter of last year, has made serious investments in its cafeteria in Cambridge, called the Hack Shack, which has a pizza oven, smoker, and raw bar. In 2018, the company even hired James Beard-award-winning chef Barry Maiden, who ran Hungry Mother in Cambridge, to create its menus. But the cafeteria workers there make far less than they do down the street at Google, Aramayo said, where the wages, health insurance, pension, and other labor costs for each worker —whom Local 26 also represents — are about $30 more an hour.
A similar standoff took place when Yarzin Sella became the food service contractor for Meta in Washington, D.C., in 2022, according to Unite Here. After a standoff over recognizing the fledgling union, which didn’t yet have a contract, Yarzin Sella agreed to bargain with Unite Here and settled the contract.
In addition to those in Cambridge and Washington, eight Meta cafeteria facilities represented by Unite Here are operated by Flagship Culinary Services, which formerly ran the Cambridge and Washington cafeterias.
When a new employer enters the picture, unionized workers have protections in place. If the employer buys a unionized company and retains the same workforce, it is only allowed to change the initial terms of employment if it informs workers of its intent to do so before taking over, according to the National Labor Relations Board. And it appears the same labor laws apply when a subcontractor assumes operations from another vendor. According to West, the line cook, Yarzin Sella did not state upfront that it planned to establish new employment conditions.
It makes sense that new employers want to set their own terms, especially if they’re trying to maintain uniform standards for workers across multiple locations, said Peter Moser, a management-side labor lawyer at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein in Boston. Getting rid of an expensive and unsustainable defined-benefit pension plan, as was done with the Meta cafeteria workers, is a no-brainer, he said: “Those plans are sort of a dinosaur these days in the private sector.”
The NLRB’s new joint employer rule could also come into play for Meta cafeteria workers, Moser said — and for any companies increasingly using vendors for security, cleaning, and food service. According to the rule, a company may be considered a joint employer if it has the authority to control one or more essential terms of employment, such as wages or schedules, even if it’s indirect and not exercised – and therefore could be forced to bargain with the union over those terms.
The rule, set to go into effect in February, could change again if Donald Trump becomes president.
The fight over these two dozen cafeteria workers’ rights is emblematic of what’s happening across the country, as profitable corporations take advantage of subcontracting arrangements – and labor laws – to keep costs low, said Harvard University labor law professor Benjamin Sachs.
“What we may have is another example of the weakness of American labor law, which, as Starbucks is showing in historic ways, allows employers to subvert the democratic will of their employees,” he said. “These workers chose to be union. They ought to be represented by a union and covered by their collective bargaining agreement.”