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Aramark workers at GU push to unionize

Negotiations follow a year of employees’ secret planning

Aramark employees at Georgetown University announced to their management on Feb. 9 that they intend to unionize, sparking negotiations between Unite Here, a union that represents 80,000 foodservice workers nationwide, and Aramark, one of the largest foodservice providers in the country. If they are successful, employees who work at the Leo J. O’Donovan Dining Hall, Jesuit residence Wolfington Hall, the Cosi and Starbucks in the Leavey Center, and the Dr. Mug in the Preclinical Building will elect union representation to Unite Here, allowing for negotiations with Aramark over wage increases and more inexpensive health care options.

The announcement comes after more than a year of clandestine planning by Aramark workers, who were later joined by Unite Here union organizers and Georgetown students and professors. Donté Crestwell and Tarshea Smith, two Aramark employees at Leo’s who have both been part of unionization efforts for more than a year, said that workers began to discuss joining a union in late 2009. A committee of approximately 20 workers formed to oversee the process and gather other workers’ support. Smith, Crestwell, and other Aramark workers said their efforts were prompted by Aramark’s mistreatment of its Georgetown employees.

It was not until December 2010, however, that these workers knew which of their colleagues were also part of the committee. Crestwell explained that this was to protect themselves from repercussions in the event that Aramark questioned any of its employees about unionizing efforts. In July, when Unite Here officially backed their campaign, approximately 15 students joined the workers in quietly preparing for unionization.

According to David Schwartz (SFS ’12) and Sam Geaney-Moore (SFS ’12), two members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee who have helped Georgetown’s Aramark employees organize since July, Unite Here representatives counseled the workers on organizing their campaign while employees approached their colleagues about supporting unionization.

Starting Jan. 28, the committee began “a blitz,” Crestwell said, to collect employee signatures on a petition expressing their intent to unionize. By then, the small group of students had also expanded to a group of about 50 students from several clubs and organizations who committed to openly supporting the workers once they made their efforts public, including members of the GU College Democrats and the Georgetown chapter of the NAACP. On Feb. 9, Schwartz said, the committee approached Aramark’s Executive Director of Campus Dining Services Andrew Lindquist with the petition, which had been signed by a large majority of Georgetown Aramark workers. Georgetown administrators had made Aramark aware of unionization efforts in a Feb. 3 letter expressing the University’s support for Aramark workers. Nonetheless, according to Schwartz, Aramark did not know the extent to which its workers were organized.

Talks between union representatives and Aramark are now ongoing, according to Unite Here Deputy Director of Politics and Communications Pilar Weiss. Aramark representatives would not comment on the negotiations or the specifics of its operations at Georgetown, but stressed that it supported union-organizing processes. Nationwide, approximately 30 percent of Aramark’s hourly workers are unionized, a majority of them under Unite Here or the Service Employees International Union.

“Aramark is neither anti-union, nor pro-union,” Karen Cutler, the director of communication for Aramark, wrote in an email. “Aramark has enjoyed excellent relationships with the 35-plus different unions that represent our employees … and seldom, if ever, has a serious dispute with any of our unions. We fully comply with the University’s Just Employment Policy process, in addition to our business conduct policy that requires equal treatment for all employees, and prohibits workplace harassment.”

Under the Just Employment Policy, the University requires all of its vendors to respect workers’ rights, including the right to organize.

Crestwell and Smith, who have worked in Leo’s for 14 and 16 years, respectively, said that their efforts to unionize were a direct response to disrespectful treatment from their Aramark managers and poor pay and benefits. Smith recalled an incident in which a manager agreed to alter her schedule so that she began work each day at 8:30 a.m., instead of 7 a.m. However, when she arrived to work one day according to her new schedule, an Aramark manager cited her twice for being late, with both a verbal and written warning. Smith, who suffers from epilepsy and is a single mother of two sons, added that she is one of many employees who cannot afford Aramark’s health insurance.

“They made it easy for us to make this decision, the way we were getting treated,” Crestwell said. “Our pay raises are just horrible. Last time we had a raise, a lot of [employees] got 12 cents. Mine was 55 cents, and that was probably one of the highest.”

Crestwell cited his experiences with Aramark during the record blizzard of Feb. 2010 as an example of poor benefits and managerial abuse. That month, Crestwell’s appendix burst, culminating in surgery and a four-day hospital stay that overran his insurance coverage, costing him $1,500. By the time the snowstorm arrived, he had used all of his leave. Despite repeated phone calls, Crestwell said he was unable to reach his supervisor in order to ask for additional time off, so with sutures still in his stomach from the surgery, Crestwell came to work. Later in the day, after the snowstorm had closed roads, public transportation, and the University, it became clear that he would not be able to go home. He stayed the night in the Rosslyn Marriott without his prescribed medication.

When other workers spoke at a large meeting in January between union representatives, 14 Aramark employees, and Georgetown students and professors, workers’ feelings toward Aramark were universally negative. In the basement of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Columbia Heights, six workers—with some speaking through students acting as Spanish-language translators—told the 80-person group about Aramark managers who fired or threatened to fire employees arbitrarily, encouraged division between Leo’s black and Hispanic workers, and unexpectedly reduced employee’s hours so that they no longer worked full-time.

Several workers alleged that Aramark’s upper management never investigated their complaints about managers’ abusive conduct. Some who spoke have worked at Georgetown for over a decade, and these employees said that when Aramark took over food services from Marriott in 2007, there was an immediate and significant decline in the way employees were treated by their Georgetown-based managers. Fearing repercussions from Aramark, the workers at that meeting requested to have the distinguishing details of the stories they told withheld. Aramark declined to comment about these allegations.

Georgetown administrators will not be involved in negotiations between Aramark and its hourly workers, Rachel Pugh, Georgetown director of media relations, wrote in an email. However, in the Feb. 3 letter to Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer, Associate Vice President for Auxiliary Services Margie Bryant and Assistant Vice President for Business Policy Planning LaMarr Billups stressed that the University requires its vendors to abide by its Just Employment Policy.

“As you know, Georgetown University’s mission as a Catholic and Jesuit institution includes principles and values that support human dignity in work, and respect for workers’ rights,” they wrote. “We expect the leadership of the companies we engage to provide services on our campuses to inform their managers, supervisors and employees of the JEP provisions in a timely manner. … We appreciate the partnership we have enjoyed with Aramark, and urge you to remain open to respectful dialogue with your employees.”

Pugh did not comment on whether negotiations could affect the University’s contract with the Philadelphia-based Aramark or student meal plan prices.

It is still unclear which method Aramark employees will follow in attempting to organize. Under the National Labor Relations Act, their efforts to unionize could result in an election monitored by the National Labor Relations Board. If a simple majority of Aramark employees voted for unionization in that election, the NLRB would recognize the union and Aramark would be obligated to bargain with them. Alternatively, Aramark could waive the election and recognize the union once workers have demonstrated that one-third of their number support unionization by signing a petition, in a process called card-check neutrality.

“Unite Here is one union that has been very aggressive in using [the card-check neutrality] strategy over the years,” Professor Bob Bruno, the director of the University of Illinois’s Labor Education Program, said. “They find that the election process favors the employer. But the employer can insist on the election. It’s really up to Aramark.”

Bruno said that in some of its locations, Aramark has fought its employees’ efforts to unionize, occasionally leading the NLRB to investigate the company for unfair labor practices.

“They have a reputation for putting up a strong fight,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily going to be the case in every set of negotiations.”