Columbia University, an Ivy League school that spans about six Manhattan blocks, has 12 cafés, lounges and dining halls. According to several student activists and an employee, dining service workers who keep the students and faculty fed have been barred from speaking Spanish on the job. They also add that for several months, workers in one eatery, Butler lounge, were told to have their meals in a small utility closet that also housed a garbage can. A group of students from a campus economic justice organiation, Student Worker Solidarity (SWS), is now petitioning the university to stop these practices

SWS member Alex Hastings, who attends Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia, says she noticed that dining hall workers weren’t responding to students speaking to them in Spanish. She says she also saw Butler workers take their meals in the closet. The college junior sought a meeting with Vicki Dunn, who runs Columbia’s dining services. Dunn wasn’t available so on April 15, Hastings, along with a friend, Sasha Hill, met with assistant director Justine Sacks and executive chef Michael DeMartino instead.

Hastings recorded the meeting and provided a copy of the audio to Colorlines. In it, one of the students explains that they’ve attempted to speak Spanish with dining workers, only to be answered in English. Sacks and DeMartino initially reject the idea that workers aren’t allowed to speak languages other than English, but DeMartino quickly concedes, “Employees were having a conversation with each other in Spanish, and I think [they] ignored the customers.” A diner complained, and “that’s where that stems from, pretty much,” Sacks said.

That incident sounds familiar to a Columbia dining worker who spoke to Colorlines on the condition of anonymity. The worker, who has been at the university for eight years, says that every year Columbia Dining has an organizational meeting where policies are discussed. The worker says that at last August’s meeting employees were told that a student had complained about them saying negative things about her in Spanish. “So we were told we had to speak a language that everyone can understand,” says the worker. They were also instructed, the worker says, to respond to students trying to speak to them in Spanish in English.

In an e-mail to Colorlines, a student services spokesperson Kristina Hernandez says that workers are not officially barred from speaking languages other than English. But she writes, “In our annual orientation for Dining employees, we do state ‘As a courtesy for your co-workers, please speak in a language that all can understand while performing your duties.’”

Most of Columbia’s dining workers speak Spanish, which means that workers are expected to speak English only as a default. But the rule plays out in different ways, explains the dining worker: Some managers are strict about enforcing the English-language only rule. Others join in on conversations in Spanish.

In her e-mail Hernandez explains that the “root of the issue” over language was a student complaint about Spanish-language speakers working in a dining hall. But she says Columbia Dining hasn’t received a grievance from staff members and that the “department is conducting further investigation into the matter.”

According to the worker, another student complaint led to Butler lounge employees having their meals in the utility closet. The student took issue with a worker who was eating in the dining hall during a busy time instead of serving students in line. From the beginning of the school year and up until about a month ago, Butler workers ate in the closet, which held a garbage can.

SWS shared an e-mail from Scott Wright, vice president for campus services, with Colorlines. In it he says, “We believe the claims in the petition stem from isolated incidents, which have been misconstrued and cannot be applied to Columbia Dining’s operations as a whole.”

Scott also says workers are encouraged to express their concerns to their managers or union and that students should use established venues for their concerns.

If workers were to issue a grievance on either matter, they would likely have to work with their union, SEIU 1199. Yet, when Colorlines contacted 1199’s communications director, Dave Bates, it took several attempts to convince him that Columbia’s dining workers are members of the union. SEIU declined to comment for this story.  

In their petition SWS demands that the “Columbia administration stop using individual student complaints to justify racist and degrading policies” and that “all new workplace policies be written down, publicly visible, and negotiated with [workers’] unions.” 

So far, it has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.