Will cafeteria workers unionize?

On April 17, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 75 filed a request to represent Aramark food service workers at Portland State. At the May Day march, employees held banners and asked the crowd to support what they feel is an urgent need to organize the workers. Now, Aramark employees will have the opportunity to vote for or against that union representation.

In response to the pro-union sentiments expressed, Aramark “is holding an active anti-union campaign,” according to Debra Kidney, an organizer for AFSCME. On May 17, the international food service corporation held five mandatory meetings for its employees, said Kidney. In addition to inviting the company’s regional director and a representative from the corporate human resources department, the company passed out flyers to its employees expressing its concern over the consequences of joining a union.

One handout, entitled “Aramark – Portland State University Fact Sheet,” outlined the potential costs for employees as members of a union, citing monthly dues, fines and initiation fees. “Add it up” the flyer said, “monthly dues, special assessments, initiation fees, fines, strikes, permanent replacements – they will all cost you money. Without a union you do not have to be concerned about these things. Without a union, all we have to be concerned about is doing a good job.”

According to Kidney, Aramark has been supplying their employees with false information about AFSCME’s charges, stating that employees will be charged an initiation fee and will be subject to fees, when in fact neither of those statements are true.

The union will, however, charge monthly dues, ranging from $9.45 to $18.95, depending upon hours worked per week. Aramark emphasized to its employees that joining a union does not guarantee anything, least of all job security. “Unions do not create or maintain jobs … they do not pay wages, they do not provide benefits,” claimed one flyer the company handed out.

Kidney admits that the union cannot guarantee anything other than the right to bargain with management on their behalf. She added that the bargaining is based on the desires and needs of employees, and representative employees will be voted on to assist in the bargaining process.

David and Neile Samson do not feel Aramark understands the needs of its employees. Both Aramark food service workers, the couple emphasizes that they are not looking for a magic button to get more wages, and is angered at attempts Aramark has made to imply that they are.

David Samson said that the representatives from Aramark could not answer one of his questions during the mandatory meeting, and he felt patronized by suggestions that employees would be better served putting their money in a savings account.

“They said, ‘If you put your money in an account, after a year you’ll have over a hundred dollars!’ said David. “I don’t have the money to pay for the company health insurance, let alone put it away. I’m not doing this for more money; I would like to see an open and ethical dialogue with employees.”

Both of the Samsons agreed that past attempts at rectifying what they saw as unfair treatment have failed. Because of this, they said they support the union fully.

According to Kidney, employees have expressed continuing frustration at their lack of voice in the company, little follow-through on promises and the practice of hiring employees at varying rates. The Samsons agreed that there is little opportunity for employees’ concerns to be heard within the company, and said that even when the administration listens, their complaints fall on deaf ears.

Employees are also seeking to gain more job security after breaks, such as the upcoming summer break. Unless employees are hired for the summer, there is no guarantee they will be allowed to return in the fall. In addition, there are complaints about low wages and unaffordable health benefits.

The Samsons were particularly concerned about what they described as employee suffering to compensate for budget shortfalls in the unit. According to Neile, sick days for full-time employees have been cut from five to two days per year.

Tomorrow, approximately 50 Aramark employees will have the opportunity to vote on the union issue. “Casual” employees, working less than 12 hours per week, clerical workers and supervisory staff will not be allowed to vote on the issue, the outcome of which will be known by the end of the day. Unions represent all other major groups of employees on campus, including professors, adjunct faculty, classified staff and janitors.

If the majority of the votes cast are for unionization, AFSCME will ask employees to vote for bargaining representatives within a week in order to get the process started. If the votes come out against unionizing, employees cannot take another vote on the issue for at least 12 months.