Cafeteria workers union campaign comes to PSU
by Adam Eshleman
Penn State provided the stage for the latest installment in an ongoing battle between food-service provider Aramark Corporation and labor union Unite Here, which represents about 20,000 Aramark employees.
On April 1, Dennis Nally, chairman and CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers—a key Aramark client—spoke at the university’s Business Building as part of the Smeal College of Business Executive Speaker Series.
Unite Here enlisted the help of members of the Penn State student organization United Students Against Sweatshops to confront Nally after his talk and introduce him to Sheryl Alston, a low-wage Aramark employee who, for the past two years, has personally prepared the salads Nally eats every day for lunch.
Alston related her hardship, explaining that Aramark pays poverty-level wages and offers health care plans far too expensive for most workers.
Aramark maintains a close relationship with Penn State, specifically the Smeal College of Business and the School of Hospitality Management. The company regularly makes undisclosed donations and sponsors various on-campus programs.
“Aramark is a great company that does great things for our students,” said Bert Bartlett, associate professor of hospitality management and head of the school’s undergraduate program.
Aramark recruits heavily at Penn State, hiring about 10 graduates each semester, according to Aramark communications director Karen Cutler.
“As a leading university, it is certainly a great place for us to find qualified job candidates,” she wrote in an e-mail.
A wing of the Mateer Building bears the Aramark name, and the company contributed money for the construction of the recently completed Stuckeman Family Building.
Cutler said Aramark often sponsors campus functions and educational forums. The company also contributes to the Penn State Dance Marathon.
According to Unite Here, Aramark doesn’t show such generosity toward cafeteria workers.
“The average Aramark worker at PricewaterhouseCoopers makes less than $400 a week,” said Unite Here researcher Caitlin Prendiville. “And in New York, that’s very hard to live on.”
According to Prendiville, 80 percent of Aramark employees working in PWC cafeterias don’t earn enough to afford even the cheapest health care plan offered by the company. The plan, which costs $45 a week, is single coverage, rendering it useless to the many workers supporting families, she said.
Aramark denies that its employees are underpaid, claiming it offers competitive wages and attractive benefits.
“[The Unite Here] campaign has not changed who this company is,” said Kristine Grow, director of corporate communications at Aramark. “We’ve always been concerned about out employees.”
Unite Here targeted Nally because of his ability to influence Aramark.
“We had been trying to reach out to him to tell him what’s going on,” Prendiville said. “Aramark is his client, and he has power over them. He needs to engage in dialogue and put pressure on them.”
Nally never responded to Unite Here, so the union decided to speak with him directly, with the help of Penn State United Students Against Sweatshops.
During Nally’s talk, USAS members asked him about his plans for dealing with the Aramark issue.
“I’ve learned long ago,” Nally said in response, “that there are things you should try to influence and things you shouldn’t try to influence. This is something I’m not trying to influence.”
Later, after being introduced to Alston, Nally seemed to change his tune somewhat, according to USAS member Doug Baldwin.
“The meeting went well,” Baldwin said. “Nally said he is going to give Aramark a clear message that he’s not going to be in the middle of this.”
Aramark has been unable to reconcile differences with unionized workers in New York City since their contracts expired last year, leading many to strike and many more to continue working without contracts.
More than 130 Aramark employees at New York Life and Water Street who have been working without a contract for a year or more were on strike from mid-November to mid-February.
On March 4, 35 Aramark workers went on strike at two Bank of New York locations. They had been working without a contract since last October.
A day later, hundreds of Aramark workers—unionized and non-unionized alike—marched on Goldman Sachs, a client and part owner of Aramark, demanding better wages and benefits.
Aramark, a company widely touted for its concern for both the environment and its employees, has accused the union of waging an undue “smear campaign” by “spreading false information.”
“This company remains what it’s always been,” Culter wrote to Voices, “a renowned employer that offers a great place to work.”
According to its Web site, Aramark is ranked number one in its industry on Fortune Magazine's 2008 list of “America's Most Admired Companies.”
The chief point of contention surrounding the dispute between Aramark and Unite Here lies in the cafeteria workers’ right to form independent unions.
“Our preference is that our employees deal directly with Aramark on issues concerning their employment, rather than through third-party unions,” Cutler said. She said 30 percent of Aramark employees are unionized, adding that the company has excellent working relationships with many other unions across the nation.
“Aramark workers are currently fighting for a fair process to decide whether or not they can have a union without management interference,” Prendiville said. “And Aramark has responded by harassing and intimidating workers.”
She said Aramark managers illegally pulled aside employees to interrogate them, demanding information about the union’s plans and which employees are involved in them. In response, Unite Here filed charges against Aramark with the National Labor Relations Board.
“We’re not smearing Aramark at all,” Prendiville said. “We’re trying to represent workers—most of whom are minorities and immigrants—that are getting paid poverty-level wages and are most of time without health insurance.”
“We offer competitive wages,” Culter said. “The vast majority of Aramark employees have the opportunity to participate in an Aramark-sponsored health plan.”
She said that, in most cases, Aramark makes “substantial contributions” to help lower the cost of health plans. The company offers a range of other benefits, she said.
“At Aramark, we know that our employees are our greatest asset,” Culter said.