The contract employees who cook and serve food to students and conference-goers at Northwestern University have voted to authorize a strike.

According to a news release from their union, UNITE HERE Local 1, 95% of the cooks, dishwashers, and housekeepers voted to authorize a walkout.

The employees do not work directly for Northwestern, but rather for a contractor, Compass Group, an international company. They staff university dining halls, conference centers and sporting events.

According to the union, the average Northwestern food service worker made $27,843 in 2019, with no raise since then. While there have been contract talks, no agreement on a new contract has been reached.

Late last month, Compass said it gave the union its “last best offer,” which the company said included “a significant wage increase and a $500 bonus if the union ratified the contract by Sept. 1,” which did not happen.

Compass said the new deal would have given an immediate $2 per hour raise, with more over the life of the contract, putting the average starting wage at $18 per hour.

However, the union says Compass, a $26 billion dollar company, is unwilling to provide workers with “wages sufficient to support their families and consistent health insurance coverage.”

Union member Veronica Reyes is quoted by Local 1 as saying, “The company hasn’t even been paying for health insurance for all of its full-time workers. Can you imagine losing your healthcare in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis?”

No date has been set for a potential walkout by the 400 Local 1 workers. However, the union release says, “A strike could begin at any time.”

Update 4 p.m. 9/23/21: An official with Compass Group said Thursday the company “remains committed to providing quality food service to the Northwestern community,” adding “we are fully prepared should the union decide on a work action.”

Sophia Bamiatzis, with Compass, said in an email to Evanston Now that the company continues to negotiate in good faith with the union.

She said the wages and benefits Compass currently pays were negotiated with and approved by Local 1, and added. “It is important to note that Compass pays the entire cost of health insurance benefits for all full-time associates based on the agreement” with the union.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.