Aramark workers notch a win at Loyola

Moira Geary and Gala M. Pierce report on the ingredients of a successful struggle for a new contract by food service workers at Loyola University in Chicago.

Students rally with Aramark workers at LoyolaStudents rally with Aramark workers at Loyola

WORKERS STANDING up for themselves. Students in solidarity holding speak-outs in the cafeteria. A campaign to refund students on their expensive meal plans if a fair contract isn't offered. An imminent strike.

This is what it took to win dining hall workers at Loyola University in Chicago a new contract with Aramark on March 31. The contract settlement only barely averted a strike.

"I was happy with the contract and glad everything went through because I didn't want to go on strike, but I would have gone on strike to support my team," said Jammie Conard, an Aramark food service worker in retail at the Damen Student Center at Loyola's Rogers Park campus. "I'm glad we didn't have to go on strike because some people couldn't afford it even though the union was offering us $200 [for each week during the strike]."

The 31-year-old Conard, who supports a 9-year-old son, says she likes working on campus and being around students. She has an additional part-time job at the postal service in addition to the full-time job at Loyola, and said she is not yet eligible for the new health care benefits.

Conard said the new contract granted her an immediate 75-cent raise with a quarter raise every six months. Other gains include a 40-hour work week (up from 37.5 hours); higher wages for all workers; a right to speak their native language in the workplace with translators available in disciplinary proceedings; protections for immigrant workers; and immediate health care benefits to some workers and health care coverage promised to other workers after a year of employment, according to a UNITE HERE Local 1 representative.

Aramark dining and catering workers won recognition of their union in 2010. About 240 workers are in the unit, and they speak about a dozen languages and hail from many different countries.

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MARIA BARAJAS, who has been an Aramark food service worker for seven years, is also happy about the gains. She said work used to be more difficult for her and her Latino co-workers, since they were expected to do more work and weren't treated fairly. Many workers were sent home before their shift was over. She described a prior boss as a racist who attempted to force her to speak English. Since workers became unionized, they have been treated with more respect.

"Since the union came in, things are better. We are happy with the union because they are treating us differently; because they know that they can't say, 'Go home, go!' or anything like that."

Maria wholeheartedly supported striking, but also noted many co-workers accepted the newly negotiated contract because they wouldn't be able to afford a strike. "I said yes," she said, "but other people, well, they wouldn't have a way to pay the bills."

Lena Johnson, another food service worker, was also willing to strike. She says management expects her to work "like an octopus with 10 hands," including waiting on customers, washing down counters, sweeping and moping floors, making sandwiches and prepping other food, washing dishes, restocking and stepping in for other workers on break to other dining halls on campus.

She said managers, who are not part of the union, ignored her concerns that she was overworked. Before working at Loyola, Johnson was a salaried activity coordinator at a nursing home for several years, which enabled her to put her children through college, until the state shut down the nursing home.

She would have continued to fight for health care coverage for all workers, not just for some; she relies on insurance from her husband's job. She also would have liked a 401(k) pension plan with matching funds and tuition reimbursement for employees who want to take classes at Loyola, where one year of tuition is more than $39,000. She said Aramark is a big corporation that can afford such benefits.

"I think they have to treat their workers better," she said.

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ARAMARK IS a global corporation (mostly) in the food and uniform service industry with its core market in North America. Headquartered in Philadelphia, Aramark's revenues reached $14.3 billion in 2015 and was listed as the 21st largest employer among Fortune 500 companies with 216,000 employees last year. Other Aramark contractors in the city of Chicago include Chicago Public Schools and the University of Chicago, both of which are deliberating about whether to renew their contracts with Aramark.

Johnson, who is close to retirement, said student support was crucial to their contract gains.

"They let us know that they were standing behind us 100 percent," she said. "Even though we weren't appreciated by Aramark, we were appreciated by the students."

R.L. Stephens, a UNITE HERE research analyst, agreed. "It must be noted that Loyola's students took up a vocal and visible role in pushing for this agreement to happen," said Stephens.

Students planned a number of small-scale actions, such as speak-outs in the dining halls, and raised awareness through social media and canvassing. A larger action, a workers' rally, was organized just before winter break. It resulted in university disciplinary charges against four students as well as the entire student government when protesters visited the Aramark representative in the Damen Student Center dining hall. Most of the charges, including disruptive and disorderly conduct and bullying, were eventually dropped.

Students also launched a "refund me" campaign, which was inspired by a similar action at Yale University. The campaign asked the university to refund students for their expensive meal plans if the workers did strike--a way to show solidarity with workers while motivating students to take notice of the issue, said junior Melissa Haggerty, a member of Students for Worker Justice at Loyola.

"Students who were not interested initially became interested in at least one aspect of the struggle," Haggerty said.

Brock Johnson, a sophomore with Students for Workers Justice, said the concessions didn't appear out of thin air. It took Loyola, workers and the students all putting pressure on Aramark. "The solidarity aspect of this entire campaign helped bring about the concessions that were won," he said.

Both Haggerty and Johnson say no one is complacent with this contract win.

"Obviously the Aramark workers aren't the only ones on campus," Johnson added. "It's the one sector of workers we've emphasized, but there are several other groups of workers that are marginalized on campus. We're planning to use the momentum of this win to help other workers."

About 300 students and workers demonstrated on April 14 in the Fight for 15 actions on campus, a national campaign that demands a living wage of $15 an hour. All of the Aramark employees interviewed for this story make less than that.

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STUDENTS FOR Worker Justice, which consists of 15 to 20 core student organizers, hope that Loyola University adopts the Just Employment Policy, which is a universal policy that provides a living wage and ensures fair labor conditions. It would extend not only to subcontracted workers but workers who directly work for the university, such as nontenured faculty, Johnson said.

Both Haggerty and Brock Johnson are motivated to help workers because of their beliefs and values.

"I'm a socialist, and I believe that people deserve a living wage and have health care and all those things," said Haggerty, who added she was raised by a single mother and knows what it is like to be in need.

Johnson said that students have something to gain by being in solidarity with workers because both are oppressed by the same neoliberal power structure:

Prior to the '70s and '80s, we saw a major shift to the right. You could have gone and worked at what's now considered a minimum-wage job and could have provided for a family and been in a sustainable job. Now, that is definitely not the case. I'm forced to go to school to have some chance of obtaining a viable job. If I am going to allow workers to be exploited at the university that I attend, I am turning a blind eye to issues affecting me. Each of us has a stake in one others' struggles--one is tethered to the other. In my personal situation as a student, I am going to amass a large debt that's going to stick with me for years after I graduate.