Food service employees’ future uncertain

Chances are if you bought a cup of coffee, a bagel or a taco over the last week at any of the Aramark food services in the Smith Memorial lobby, an employee has politely asked you to sign a neon-orange card, pledging your support to the food service employees of PSU and their union.

PSU’s recent change of food service providers has employees feeling uncertain about their future. More than 65 PSU food service employees are unionized under their current contract with Aramark Corp., meaning they have wage guarantees and health care. All that could change when Sodexho takes over summer term.

Maryland-based Sodexho, part of a French multinational corporation, beat out Aramark and Chartwells when PSU’s food service contract came up for renewal last fall. During the process, all bidding companies verbally pledged to maintain the existing union and honor the union’s contract. But food service employees worry Sodexho has no intention of keeping those promises.

"We’ve heard of cases where they’ve said, ‘Oh, we’ll keep the union,’ and then they turn around and fire 51 percent of the employees to break the union," said Carlos Montano, president of PSU’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local1336.

The incoming company could break the union by firing just over half the unionized staff and hiring new employees, potentially leaving workers jobless or bereft of former benefits, according to Debra Kidney, an organizer for AFSCME Council 75.

Sodexho’s decision to maintain the union may depend on contract negotiations happening this week between the company and Julie North and John Eckman of the university’s auxiliary services department.

While the specifics of the PSU contract are still being discussed, Sodexho spokeswoman Leslie Aun said a decision to maintain an existing union is made on a case-by-case basis.

"It comes down to what happens in the negotiation," she said, adding that universities can sometimes stipulate that an incoming company must keep a union.

"It’s actually more expensive for Sodexho to fire employees and hire new people," Montano said. "But then they could give whatever wages they want and take away health care and dental."

For now, the organizers are concentrating their efforts on making their concerns known to negotiators.

"We’re trying to show we have an overabundance of support from the community at large," Montano said.

This week, Aramark cashiers have offered student customers postcards of support to sign. Montano has delivered hundreds of cards to interim Vice President of Finance and Administration Cathy Dyck every day, with the misunderstanding that Dyck was the head negotiator.

"I hope [Dyck] understands it’s really possible that all of us will have to go out and look for a job," an Aramark worker who calls himself Toonie said. "That’s going to put a drain on our livelihoods."

Dyck plans to meet with Montano, North and Eckman to discuss union concerns, she said. "This is all about being part of the campus," Dyck told Montano Wednesday. "Nobody’s looking to get rid of you. This isn’t an issue of service or anything."

She said the negotiators are consulting the Department of Justice to make sure there are no legal barriers to requesting Sodexho to maintain the union.

The prospect of working for a new company makes some food service workers uneasy not only because they could lose benefits and negotiation power; they could also lose their jobs.

Even if Sodexho maintains the union, the union contract will still be reviewed, Aun said. "We won’t just take the old contract. We’ll redo it in our own lexicon."

The postcard drive has reinforced solidarity for some workers. Students For Unity and other groups have pledged their support.

"The support we’ve had has been great," student employee Sara Kerns said. "We’re not just being cast aside. We’re easily replaceable, but that doesn’t mean we want to lose our jobs."

"We’ve been told that we are part of people’s college experience," Montano said.

"The senior staff here knows the faculty, they know the students. They know how they like their orders," Toonie said. "It’s not just us who have something at stake."

"There are people who for various reasons need this job," Kerns said.

Besides losing a job, workers feel the sense of community is at stake.

"This is a really cool group of people," Kerns said. "We hang out together even when we’re not here."

"These are our friends and family here," said Toonie, who has worked for Aramark for three years.

"I love working here," Kerns said. "It works really well with my schedule. When I’ve fallen behind in classes, like everyone has, I’ve asked to come in a few hours later, and they’re really cool about it. And I like not having a huge commute."

"A lot of the older generation working here is really concerned," Montano said. "I don’t care about my job, I could work anywhere, but some people need this job."