On February 17 York University food service workers in Unite Here local 75 went on strike to protest unfair wages and working conditions. The food service jobs at York University are contracted out by the administration to Aramark, a private corporation.
Racism and Harassment
I spoke with Joanna, one of the workers on strike outside the Keele Street entrance to York University at the picket line. “We need to fight for fairness. We need respect, and a stop to the racism on campus. We've heard certain managers say they don't want Black workers, and that no Muslims can get promoted. I don't think that's fair. We're all human.”
These complaints echo what I was told weeks earlier at a Fight for 15 and Fairness meeting by another Aramark employee and organizer, Melissa. “There’s instances that managers go around saying, ‘we’re going to stop hiring black people.’ Telling workers, one worker in particular who applied for a promotion, that she was not going to get that promotion because she’s Muslim. Workers being discriminated against when they’re pregnant. Certain Black workers being told that they’re not allowed to sit together during break because they are too loud and students have complained about them. Mind you, they’re the most active in their union, and the most outspoken on the injustices that happen. Workers being told that they’re worthless and they’re nothing more than a number and they’re easily replaceable.” Melissa also informed me that the low wages are not related to seniority. One woman who has been employed by Aramark for 28 years is making just over $14 an hour.
Aramark's profits have reached over $90 million a year, however they have not yet met the workers' demands for a $15 an hour minimum wage, paid sick time, a safe and healthy workplace, and an end to racism and Islamophobia. Aramark did seem to find money in their budgets to pay four people to sit in their vehicles all day surveilling workers during the strike. Each of these cars had laptops and HD handycams inside pointed at the picket line. Alec had told me earlier this month that they did this type of surveillance at his strike as well.
I approached all four of these vehicles and asked the men operating the surveillance equipment what their role was at the strike. Most declined to speak. I asked one what his role was and he said “I don't know....I know, but I'm not supposed to discuss it.” As another said, “I'm not in charge of safety but I'm covering it with video just in case something happens, you might have a car that goes through the crowd...I work for a company that's subcontracted...we're a PR company.”
President Shoukri of York University has dodged attempts to meet with him. Melissa said that when a delegation of students and workers together went to his offices, “he never showed up. He knew we were coming, his people called him and then he just never came back to his office.”
Support from Faculty and Students
Various workers have said the strikes are going over well and the attitude from students and staff is one of support. Alec, a young recent hire working at an Aramark-contracted coffee shop told me about his experiences at another Aramark strike at the Fight for 15 meeting: “Definitely positive. Exciting...Everything was collaborative and it was fun. And I really did have fun, it was my first strike and it was a good experience.” When I asked Alec if he would recommend such an action to other new workers he said “definitely! Make a change, come on!”
The York Faculty Association has endorsed the campaign as well. At the picket line on the 17th Joanna similarly described “overwhelming” support on campus from students coming out and cheering them on in the cold at an earlier strike. She said some faculty members came out to the line as well. Joanna had brought her young daughter, perhaps six years old, to join her at the strike as there was no school. Her daughter happily carried a megaphone and led energetic “mighty, mighty union” songs on the picket line.
Describing management installed by Aramark, Joanna said “they just want us to make the money, but they don't care.” She went on to explain personal situations of mistreatment, where management is hostile and pushy towards employees in under-staffed situations.
Yesterday striking cafeteria workers from York joined those from University of Toronto Scarborough campus in deliveringn 5,000 signed petitions to Queen's Park, calling on the universities and government to support decent work. "It's outrageous that any worker on a university campus should be making $11.50 an hour, and hiding behind a subcontractor is no excuse," said UNITE HERE 75 president Lis Pimentel.
Show your support
Visit the site http://york15.ca to send a direct message to President Shoukri. The text includes a call to recognize and respect the food service workers that help the University community function: “All of us meet and interact with food service workers every single day: they prepare our meals, they serve us coffee, they keep the food courts running smoothly. Their hard work makes it possible for literally tens of thousands of students, staff and faculty to spend long days on campus—to study, to learn, to teach and to work.”