Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cafeteria workers strike against poverty wages

Published Dec 20

Every day since Nov. 12, a group of cafeteria workers have held an energetic picket line outside the New York Life Insurance building in Manhattan. Employees of Aramark, they are demanding a 70-cent per hour pay hike.

It’s a pittance for Aramark, a food services contractor that raked in $11.6 billion in sales last year and paid its CEO $16.2 million.

Most of the workers have been employed by Aramark for 20 years and earn $10 to $14 per hour, which comes out to less than $500 per week, said Floridalma Mayen, an 18-year veteran of the company. “Everything goes up but our wages,” she added.

Mayen stood outside the building on a frigid Monday afternoon as the strike went into its fifth week. In addition to the 50 workers at the New York Life building, 36 Aramark employees at 55 Water St. are also on strike. The workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 100, have been without a contract for the past year.

Aramark is offering them only a 50-cent per hour increase and refusing to make the increase retroactive. Mayen said that in the last three years they’ve had a mere 55-cent per hour raise.

The cafeteria workers are not alone in the struggle. “We have a lot of support from the customers,” Mayen said. New York Life employees have boycotted the cafeteria and refused to renew enrollment in a pretax dining plan until the strike is over. And on Dec. 11 civil rights leader Jesse Jackson showed up to offer his support. Jackson, who had a previously planned meeting with the chairman of New York Life, joined the workers afterwards and told them he had spoken on their behalf to Aramark and the head of New York Life.

Aramark employees at other sites are also prepared to battle for better wages as their collective bargaining agreements with the company expire at cafeterias around the city. UNITE HERE said Aramark food service workers at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Bank of New York and Citigroup have already voted to authorize a strike at their locations. The union said that if Aramark does not raise their living standards, workers at cafeterias at CBS, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and the United Nations could join the strike as their contracts expire.

The food service giant has a long record of poverty wages and poor working conditions. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor found that Aramark failed to pay proper wages and benefits to some food service employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory. New Mexico Business Weekly reported in an April 12 article that following the investigation, Aramark paid $153,440 in back wages and fringe benefits to 72 employees. In 2004, the Baltimore Wage Commission found that Aramark, which operated food services at the Baltimore Convention Center, violated the city’s overtime laws for two years. The Baltimore Sun reported that the company subsequently paid 283 workers $131,000 in back pay.

UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union have compiled information on Aramark’s mistreatment of workers at the Web site

Aramark employees, meanwhile, are fighting to bring more workers into the union. Last month Aramark workers at PriceWaterhouseCooper on Madison Avenue submitted a petition to their employers asking for a fair process to decide whether to organize a union. Crains New York Business reported Dec. 11 that seven of the 20 food service workers at Citigroup’s executive dining room at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue were suspended for two days after they submitted a petition to Citigroup chairman Robert Rubin stating their desire to unionize.

In a quarterly report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission June 29, Aramark said that approximately 37,000 employees in its U.S. operations are represented by unions and covered by collective bargaining agreements. Noting that unions are seeking to increase the representation of its workforce, Aramark stated: “We have always respected our employees’ right to unionize or not to unionize. However, the unionization of a significantly greater portion of our workforce could increase our overall costs at the affected locations and affect adversely our flexibility to run our business in the most efficient manner to remain competitive or acquire new business.”

Aramark workers in Manhattan and around the country won’t allow Aramark to continue to grow its profits by paying them poverty wages. “We’ll stay on strike until the company gives us retroactive pay and 70 cents [more per hour],” Mayen said.

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