The fate of L.A.’s Democratic presidential debate hinges on a bargaining session

Union members and clergy supporting Unite Here met with Loyola Marymount University officials in Los Angeles on Monday to push for a resolution to a contract dispute that is threatening Thursday's Democratic presidential debate.
(Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not often that a small group of food-service workers can dream of exercising power over an American political party. But this week, Los Angeles is getting to see one of those moments.

A group of about 150 unionized workers at Loyola Marymount University are headed to a contract bargaining session Tuesday that could determine whether this week’s Democratic presidential debate will happen at the private university’s west side campus.

Neither the Democratic Party nor the university itself is directly involved in the dispute, which is between a campus food-services contractor, Sodexo, and Unite Here, a powerful service-workers union.


Last week, Democratic candidates handed the workers a bargaining chip by announcing they would not cross Unite Here Local 11’s planned picket line at the school, effectively boycotting the televised debate Thursday if the labor dispute is not resolved. The Democratic National Committee has not disclosed whether it is looking for another location.

The candidates’ show of support, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, surprised the food workers, who first learned on social media that the Democrats would honor their plans to picket.

“It was astonishing to me,” said Angela Fisher, 58, a Sodexo prep cook at the university who hadn’t been paying attention to the presidential election before now. “I feel like we’re little people and they’re big people,”

Fisher makes $14.40 an hour. She says she has been working for Sodexo for three years and became homeless two years ago because she had to pick between rent and food. She sleeps in her car and wakes up around 2 a.m. to go shower at a gym and get ready for work.

“It took somebody else outside Sodexo to hear our cry,” she said. “It’s power for us.”

Food-service worker and Unite Here member Angela Fisher says she became homeless after working for Sodexo because she couldn't afford rent.
(Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

Tom Perez, the head of the DNC, spent “the entire weekend on the phone with various stakeholders, including Sodexo, LMU and Unite Here” in hopes of finding a solution, a party spokeswoman said in a statement.


The workers are continuing to work under their last contact, which expired in March. The top issues are better wages and more affordable healthcare. If a settlement is not reached, the union will carry out its plan to picket Thursday, said union spokeswoman Maria Hernandez.

Sodexo did not respond to requests for comment Monday. The company told The Times in a statement last week that “we have been negotiating in good faith with the United Here Local 11 since December of last year” to reach a new contract that’s “equitable for everyone, including our employees, and we still intend to achieve such an agreement.”