Aramark cafeteria workers at PSU join AFSCME union

Eight years after workers at Portland State University's (PSU) cafeteria lost a union to contracting out, a new group of cafeteria workers voted May 24 to unionize. The vote to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was 28 to 13.

Since the university's cafeteria was privatized in the early 1990s, Aramark has held the contract to provide food service. Within that contract, Taco Bell, Subway and Starbucks set up shop in the Aramark cafeteria.

Feeding captive audiences is Aramark's specialty: It has cafeteria management contracts at over 1,200 workplaces, 400 schools, and 250 jails and prisons, in addition to hospitals, national parks, and sports stadiums. With 167,000 employees, the company made $168 million after taxes last year, on revenues of $7.3 billion.

Aramark workers at PSU make $6.50 to $8 an hour.

AFSCME recently launched a national campaign to organize the food service industry, particularly at three companies - Aramark, Sodexho Marriott, and Compass - that dominate the market for contracted-out institutional cafeterias.

Richard Bensinger, former head of the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, has been working with the union as a consultant on its food service campaigns. He flew in twice to help with strategizing on the PSU campaign, even taking part in worker "house calls."

AFSCME is targeting Aramark in part because the company is a big promoter of privatizing cafeteria and laundry workers at public facilities. The company has specialized in this so-called "outsourcing," since the late 1980s.

Before Aramark arrived, the PSU cafeteria had been an in-house operation, with workers represented by Oregon Public Employees Union receiving union wages and benefits. Now they earn the low wages that are the standard in the industry.

"Food service workers are basically the coal miners of the information age," said Aramark pizza cook David Samson. "We're paid minimum wage, and when you sign on, they give an employee handbook, and in it they state that they are responsible in no way for you whatsoever, that they can hire you and fire you for no reason, whatever pleases them, and you have absolutely no recourse.

"I was promised benefits would be available, but the benefits package was overly expensive. I had to make a choice between feeding my family and busfare and paying for this exorbitantly-priced insurance."

AFSCME represents Aramark workers in Minnesota and Florida. Nevertheless, the company fought the PSU union drive with letters and meetings.

"What I ask is that you trust me," wrote Aramark food service director Toni Larsen to her subordinates. "I hope you will give me a chance to prove to you that I know we need to do some things differently. I need you to give me a chance to demonstrate that by working together we can make this a better place to work. You do not need to pay someone else to do that. I hope you will decide to give me a chance by voting no." In the campaign to unionize, AFSCME found considerable support among students. PSU student government declared a "Boycott Aramark Day," and scores of students signed a banner critical of Aramark for disrespect of workers rights.

AFSCME said after the vote was announced, an Aramark manager told her the company will appeal the vote to the National Labor Relations Board.

June 1, 2001 issue

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