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Strike for $15: Food service workers ready to take on Aramark

CJ Chanco

January 26, 2017

Cafeteria workers at York University and the University of Toronto’s (UofT) Scarborough campus are gearing up for a joint strike in February. The workers are employed by Aramark, which is contracted out by the universities to provide food service on their campuses.

Workers themselves see any potential strike as targeting the universities, whose subcontracting of food services are part of the problem. Subcontractors like Aramark are used by universities to provide food services on the cheap, which invetiably results in unjust working conditions for workers. Aramark is subcontracted to manage production and workers in cafeterias on each campus, also at campus establishments such as Tim Hortons, Pizza Pizza, Booster Juice, Starbucks and Freshii.

The workers, represented by UNITE-HERE Local 75, have been negotiating for months with Aramark for better wages and respecting basic rules against workplace harassment and intimidation. The union represents roughly 55 and 250 food sector workers at UofT-Scarborough and York, respectively.

Workers at York’s main campus are ready to fight, as shown by their 100 percent strike vote. Workers’ grievances leading up to the decision have been building for years.

Fighting a bully boss

Amid rising energy and food costs, many seek higher wages just to keep them and their families afloat. Some have worked for over twenty years on the campuses with limited options for promotion. For others still, the everyday abuse of workplace harassment has taken its toll.

More than once, workers have been physically assaulted. There have been instances of workers coming forward with stories of managers kicking and pushing them, and then becoming visibly annoyed when these workers dared to come forward, with no consequences dispensed by management. For those suspected to be active in the union, on the other hand, subtle threats, including accusations of petty theft, have been reported.

At York, religious and ethnic minorities are under particular pressure. After seeking a promotion, one worker was told bluntly by her manager that she would never get one, since she was Muslim. Another openly suggested that they needed to hire fewer “black people”. Workers of colour make up a significant proportion of Aramark employees.

Contracting out standards and responsibilities

These working conditions contrast sharply with the university’s self-image of being a progressive employer, says Melissa Sobers, who is an Aramark employee based at the Rogers Centre and (a member of UNITE-HERE Local 75).

York, having delegated management of its cafeterias to sub-contractors like Aramark, has preferred a hands-off approach to these issues. “Aramark is on a contract with the university, our goal is to put pressure on the university to hold it accountable”, notes Sobers. It could also push the company to negotiate with Local 75 on a fair basis.

The union’s four-year collective bargaining agreement expired in September 2016. Yet even arranging an appointment with Aramark representatives to discuss a renewal of the CBA was a challenge. After several attempts to do so, negotiations only really began in December.

Fighting for $15 and more

Alongside an end to workplace harassment, the key demands of the workers have included a shorter period within which to renegotiate their CBA (from four to three years), expanded dental, health and wellness benefits, including coverage for part-timers, and higher wages, with a view toward raising base salaries to $15.00 an hour immediately upon ratification of the new contract. Aramark workers currently earn a minimum of $12.21 an hour.

So far Aramark negotiators have refused to give in to any of these demands, with one of the few concessions seeing their wages rise to a little more than .20 cents an hour a year until 2019 or 2020, by the end of which they would receive barely $14 an hour.

“Ideally people should be living on more than twenty dollars an hour. I came to York and was shocked to find people living what they make here. I would not survive on that amount. I don’t understand how they do it,” says Teferi Zemene, a national union representative for UNITE-HERE who is assisting with Local 75’s organising efforts.

Aramark insists that it’s in dire financial straits and cannot raise wages at this time.

But the Philadelphia-based company remains one of the largest labour sub-contracting companies in the world, with fairly healthy revenues of over 14 billion a year. Operating primarily in the food service sector, it also has a rather blemished record of labour rights violations and substandard services in the United States.

Building community and campus support

At a union meeting last week, some workers expressed real fears of the implications of a strike. How would it be sustained over the long haul? Service disruptions might turn students against workers, they could lose their jobs, or Aramark may well decide to enlist scabs to bypass them entirely.

Others sounded a more hopeful note. With a 100% strike vote, they have all the more reason to encourage and support one another and act as one family. Over the past few weeks, some students have come up to them, saying, in hushed tones, that they had heard about a possible strike and would be there to back them up, and ‘is there anything we can do to help’? On early mornings, cleaning workers and even TTC bus drivers have asked them the same.

The solidarity of the wider university community – including students, faculty, and other non-faculty staff – is central to winning a potential strike and boosting morale, said James Clark, who works for the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) at the meeting.

“The slogan, ‘York works because we do’ – that’s true for every worker. So we need to think about what allies can do to back you up. It’s not just your co-workers or fellow unionists who have your back. We are talking about how to organise the students, the professors, all the other workers on campus,” Clark says.

A member of CUPE 1281, Clark added that a history of militant action and solidarity across different sections of the university’s working community, including the three CUPE 3903 strikes between 2000 and 2015, can inspire additional confidence.

Already, the Real Food, Real Jobs coalition, organised by York students in May last year, has worked alongside Local 75, playing an important role in raising awareness about the conditions of food sector workers. Over 1,000 students have signed onto a petition calling on York President Mamdouh Shoukri to bring pressure to bear on Aramark.

Students can also choose to boycott Aramark-operated restaurants on campus as the strike continues.

Similar campaigns by food service workers have recently been won at Yale University and Harvard in the United States, the latter achieving a victory of $35,000 fixed annual salaries for workers, as opposed to hourly wages. Because of outdated labour laws which do not grant successorship rights for subcontracted workers, these workers are weary of the universities’ potential to switch over to a different subcontractor or even take the operation in-house.

Sobers says that such differences in compensation persist among people on the same campus space, depending on whether one’s contract falls under the university administration or is delegated to a private contractor like Aramark.

Connecting with the Fight for $15 and Fairness  

Sobers hopes they can keep the pressure up across the province. Their efforts come at an opportune time. The Ontario Ministry of Labour’s Changing Workplaces Review offers an opening to rethink successorship rules, which allows companies to engage in contract-flipping. This practice can leave people jobless as one contractor at any given workplace is replaced by another, with no legal obligation to retain employees.

Alia Karim, an activist with the $15 and Fairness campaign, stresses that the success of the York food sector workers would be a positive development in the Fight for $15 and Fairness. “If the food service workers at York strike and win a $15 starting wage, this could empower workers and students on campus and across the province to demand more,” says Karim. “It could show that when you fight, it is possible to win $15 and fairness at work.”

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