More than a year and a half after union organizers started speaking to cafeteria workers at Xavier, the university has taken a stand.
The Rev. Michael J. Graham, president of XU, recently issued a letter saying the school supports letting cafeteria workers use a card-check system to decide whether they want a union.
The card-check process is less contentious than union campaigns and elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, according to union organizers. XU wants Sodexho to immediately recognize the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) for collective bargaining if a majority of workers check cards saying they want representation.
Ryan Nissim-Sabat, organizer for HERE Local 12, is excited about XU's position.
"This letter is historic," he says.
Graham's letter is the first time a university president has taken such a direct position, according to Nissim-Sabat.
"I think President Graham recognized that Xavier, as a Jesuit, Catholic University, had to be involved in this process to ensure that workers' rights are protected," he says.
HERE has had the legal right to conduct an organizing campaign all along, but lobbied the university to compel Sodexho to accept a card-check neutrality agreement.
"The purpose of the present letter is to comply with HERE's request in part, and to indicate to both HERE and Sodexho the parameters within which the university would hope that such a process will proceed to a just conclusion," Graham wrote.
"The words 'parameters' and 'hope' are carefully chosen. It is the responsibility of Sodexho and HERE to work out the specific details of the process by which this organizing campaign will reach a decision."
Nissim-Sabat says the workers are encouraged.
"The workers are excited about the possibility of moving this forward and we'll be working with Sodexho on the guidelines that Father Graham laid out," he says.
Graham's letter calls on Sodexho to contact Local 12 to discuss arrangements for the organizing process.
"This process must ensure that the workers' right to organize is freely protected without intimidation or harassment from either party," Graham wrote.
In their efforts to convince XU that a card-check agreement is the best way to protect workers from outside pressure, the union cited Catholic social teaching, which says union membership is not just a right of workers, but a benefit to society.
"Catholic social teaching supports workers' right to organize if they so choose; and as a Jesuit, Catholic university, Xavier fully supports this right of workers as well," Graham wrote.
He outlined the university's desire for what would happen next, including appointment of a neutral third party to monitor the process. The university wants the organizing process to be completed within 60 days, but no later than the end of the year.
The letter also states that if employees reject the union, the university's desire is that HERE "will agree to halt any further activity to organize food service workers on the Xavier campus for a period of two years."
Graham said he hopes the campaign will be ethical.
"Xavier University's strong position is that Sodexho must not give the appearance in any way of attempting to use its leverage as an employer to unfairly influence their employees with respect to HERE's organizing campaign," Graham wrote.
Even so, XU has reservations about demanding neutrality from Sodexho.
"As a university, an institution whose very heart is the critical examination of questions from multiple points of view, Xavier urges Sodexho and HERE Local 12 to agree upon an organizing process that permits an open and fair airing of issues while avoiding even the appearance of undue influence in the rights of workers to organize or not," Graham wrote.
Sodexho spokeswoman Leslie Aun says the company is responding.
"We're working cooperatively with the union to comply with the university's wishes," she says. "I think Father Graham has made the university's wishes very, very clear and we're going to work to fulfill them."