Allies Against Aramark: University of Chicago students and campus workers team up for workers’ rights

Repression, corruption, subversive action… while this may sound more like an authoritarian regime than a dining hall, these are all words used to describe the workers’ conditions in the last Aramark Worker Student Alliance (AWSA) meeting at the University of Chicago. Though the thousands of University members that frequent the dining halls daily normally don’t perceive the conflict, many students are trying to bring visibility to the workers’ struggle for a better working environment. Roughly a third of the campus dining hall workers have met with a group of students for the last three Saturdays, forming a basis of support for the workers in the renegotiation of a new contract with Aramark Inc., the university’s food service provider.

The issues at stake seem to be simply stated under the umbrella of “respect.” But as Jack Elesniewski, a member of Graduate Students United and a central organizer of AWSA, points out, this term refers more directly to “management implementing too much policy.” This description may be too diplomatic; greivances against the extension and misuse of management roles range from mistreatment and unequal codes of conduct to accusations as severe as blatant breaches of contract. In addition to the reform of current practices, the workers’ demands call for a contract that adheres to the current rise of cost of living in Chicago and lowers healthcare costs, which have been rising faster than salaries.

“Listen, we need you real bad…” Cecilia Mayers, cashier at Bartlett Dining Commons and active member of AWSA, is quick to respond to my inquiry about the student-worker alliance as I am checking out at the cash register. Eager to appeal to those who she feels will legitimate her struggle, Mayers without further prompting goes on to describe the worsening conditions in the dining hall since the AWSA formed and how the students are needed now more than ever. The students of AWSA are filling the roles of listener, facilitator, and most importantly, supporter of the workers’ cause. Olivia Ortega and Sofia Toledo, workers in Pierce Dining Hall, agree that without the students the movement would be unsuccessful. While most of the dining hall workers are members of the Teamsters union, Ortega asserts that “the students are very important for support because the company isn’t going to pay attention to the workers, and the union has never helped.” Elesniewski, however, clarifies that the AWSA is in fact working with, rather than existing alongside, a more progressive new slate of Teamsters in representing the workers on campus.

Though the attention that the students are attracting to the workers’ campaign is helpful, the gap between the workers’ view of their role and the students’ seems to be an ongoing rift as events unfold. Elesniewski is clear that the students’ function is that “we’re here to support the campus dining hall workers in their struggle… holding worker appreciation events, open forums, asking questions…up to this point it’s really been a dialogue.” Yet the workers seem to place much more dependency on the students than the AWSA implies. At least from the workers’ perspective, the alliance has been much more of an organizing force than one of passive support. It is clear from the meetings that the workers look to the students for leadership and consultation, including general visibility activities such as advertising and rallies. The students have been handing out flyers to advertise the creation of AWSA and recruit new members in each of the dining halls, sending a clear message to the management about who is on the workers’ side of the struggle.

The more active role of AWSA could have consequences, especially considering the recent number of suspensions and firings that are suspected to be connected to alliance activity. When asked about whether these recent events in the dining halls were a result of AWSA involvement, Mayers without hesitation and with much conviction affirmed, “Absolutely, without a doubt…they’re firing people left and right for no reason at all… things are really getting bad.” Though no firings can be clearly connected at the moment to AWSA involvement, Elesniewski thinks the question is “when, not if… it’s part of the game when you’re working with a company like Aramark.” This leads to the question of whether students could have the strength and involvement needed to act on these. Obviously, the students are not a union, so some might criticize whether they are able to hold up their end of the bargain, so to speak. They’re able to organize and encourage, but who is held accountable when workers need to take legal action?

One AWSA member states, “I can’t say that I’d trust the student body to help out should this get worse.”

Though the implication of this perceived gap presents a problem for all members of the alliance, many organizers are not convinced that this gap exists. Second-year undergraduate Patricia Ross, an active member and translator for AWSA, assures that the students’ role is primarily supportive and that the workers are organizing themselves around their own common goals. Elesniewski emphasizes the union’s role, saying that “we can do the protests and the union can take care of the legal issues.” He goes on to point out the active role of the management in spreading rumors about “the student union,” including myths that workers will have to pay double union fees. This is only one of the many examples of subversive activity that some workers claim the management is carrying out in the dining halls. Many workers accuse the management of unfair hiring practices that intentionally institute racial segregation in an effort to discourage unification. Regardless of whether this racial divide amongst workers is intentional or not, it is certainly a demobilizing factor in the effort for renegotiation with Aramark. Many of the black workers are unionized, while many of the Latino workers are not, leading to suspicions that non-union Latinos are being hired to purposely discourage unification and subsequent action. Although many of the accusations about the extent of the management’s control over the functions of the dining hall are undocumented, they give an insight into how the workers feel about their relationship to management and the repressive conditions of the workplace.

An Aramark spokesperson declined to comment on any specific issues addressed, but stated via email that “employees are essential to the service we provide to our clients and customers each and every day” and that they are currently “unaware of any formal grievances being filed at the University of Chicago.”

Although they have no lack of ambition for a productive movement, it is clear that workers like Mayers, Ortega, and Toledo are looking to the students for, above all, leadership. There is a consensus by all parties involved that the students play an important part in this dynamic because they are the primary consumers of the Aramark workers’ services. If anyone will have power over Aramark, it is their customers. Elesniewski explains, “Students have a different kind of consumer leverage, that when combined with the leverage of the employee is very powerful.”

Let’s face it, dining hall workers have basically taken the place of our moms; they feed us, clean up after us, put up with our bad moods, even see our daily growth as we become the college versions of ourselves. Yet students barely know their names, much less know their struggle for a better quality of life. Ultimately, AWSA is, at its most basic level, a strong group of students trying to change that trend together with workers. When questioned as to what would come of a success of this effort, Elesniewski emphasizes that “what’s been motivating those of us who have been involved is the way that workers are responding to us and building relationships… at the end of campaigns what moves things and what changes things are the relationships of trust, [the feeling that] we’re in this together…the trust of solidarity.”

The AWSA currently holds meetings on Saturday afternoons and is in the process of planning a rally for the workers’ contract renegotiation on Friday, May 30th from 2:30 to 3:30 at the loading dock beside Bartlett Dining Commons. If interested in joining the effort, contact patriciaross@uchicago.edu.

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