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Photo by Mariah Wilson

Back-to-school strike likely as negotiations between Aramark and food workers’ union continue

By Sean Willett, June 30 2017 —

Aramark has made an offer to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 to form a new union contract, but UFCW spokesperson Tom Hesse says the settlement is still missing crucial details. If more progress is not made during the next negotiation meeting — and if the University of Calgary doesn’t intervene — Hesse expects UFCW employees to call a strike in August.

The offer was presented to UFCW representatives on June 27 during a meeting between negotiating parties and is meant to settle an ongoing labour dispute between Aramark and the union. Aramark is an American company contracted by the University of Calgary to provide catering services, run the residence Dining Centre and operate several food service locations on campus including Tim Hortons and Bento Sushi. After a successful unionization vote in April 2016, Aramark employees at the U of C joined the UFCW and began the process of negotiating a collective agreement.

The offer presented to UFCW was a comprehensive document that Aramark intends to use as a new union contract if their terms are accepted by employees. According to Hesse, certain sections of the offer align closely with the conditions set out by union negotiators.

“In terms of day-to-day rights, such as when an employee can take a leave of absence, this offer brings us much closer to a deal in that area than we were before,” Hesse said. “Looking at this part of the contract, I don’t see any insurmountable hurdles.”

However, other sections of Aramark’s offer didn’t meet the UFCW’s terms. These include the company’s proposed benefits scheme, which would keep Aramark employees on the co-pay plan that was instituted after the company took over the U of C’s food service contract.

“This is one of the reasons employees unionized in the first place,” Hesse explained. “[Chartwells], the previous food service provider at the university, provided a benefit plan that didn’t cost employees a penny. Under Aramark’s plan, employees would have to pay about $40 per pay period. For employees making minimum wage, that’s expensive. ”

The UFCW is also concerned with Aramark’s proposed wage plan. While the company is prepared to move to a $15 minimum wage in adherence with provincial legislation, this increase will not come with a proportionate raise for staff with more responsibilities or experience.

“The employer is taking the position that if you’ve worked at Tim Hortons for five minutes you will make $15 an hour when the new minimum wage is introduced. But if you’ve worked there for five years, you’ll be making $15.10 an hour,” Hesse said. “It’s little more than what’s required by law and a failure to recognize performance, experience and responsibility.”

Hesse said Aramark has also refused to accept the entirety of the UFCW’s proposed culture of dignity and respect clause, which would help advance managers that prioritize employee well-being. While Hesse is disappointed that this clause has become a sticking point in negotiations, he is not surprised.

“It’s a sad reality that the employer-employee relationship is often about power,” he said. “This mentality of, ‘I’m the boss, and you do as you’re told.’ In some workplaces you see this starting to change, where employees are given independence and respect and aren’t just treated like cattle. But Aramark is an American company, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate. That’s the culture we’re trying to change, but it’s not easily done.”

Aramark and the UFCW will return to the negotiating table in July. Aramark said they still hope an agreement can be reached.

“We are working through a government-appointed mediator to assist in the negotiation process,” Aramark vice-president of communications Karen Cutler said in a written statement. “We continue to make progress and are hopeful that we will reach an agreement that works for all parties.”

But after a year of negotiations and little progress, Hesse is prepared to call for a strike if a better offer is not presented to employees.

“We’ve gotten closer to a deal, but we’re still far apart on some critical issues,” he said. “If we don’t have an agreement in July, if there is no substantive bargaining, I’m going to use the provisions under the Alberta labour code to advance this to a strike vote. So we’ll be on strike by August and certainly by the beginning of the school year.”

Faced with the possibility of students meeting picket lines on their first day of classes, Hesse hopes that the U of C itself will take a more active role in negotiating with Aramark.

“These employees aren’t providing services to Aramark, or to people on the street or at the mall,” Hesse said. “They’re performing services for the university, for its staff, visitors and faculty. So the university needs to step up and demand that employees are treated fairly for providing these services.”

When the U of C initially signed its contract with Aramark in 2015, Alberta’s minimum wage was only $10.20 an hour. Hesse suggested that the U of C revisit this contract to help Aramark meet the UFCW’s conditions.

“The U of C is an economic player in this,” Hesse said. “They ultimately pay the bill for the food services through their contract with Aramark. Aramark probably bid on the contract with a projection that didn’t include a $15 minimum wage, so perhaps the university should adjust its economic thinking and adjust their relationship with Aramark.”

The U of C does not currently seem willing to step into negotiations between the union and Aramark.

“We understand that the parties continue to meet and negotiate, and we hope that they reach a mutual agreement,” said U of C director of ancillary services Shane Royal in a written statement.

While Hesse has made it clear that the UFCW is in no rush to go on strike, the union is still prepared to act if Aramark cannot produce a more satisfactory deal. The UFCW will provide strike pay to employees for an indefinite period and is planning to form picket lines to block food delivery trucks heading towards the university. In Hesse’s view, it’s the U of C, not Aramark, that stands to lose the most from a UFCW strike.

“This is not an insignificant thing,” he said. “This will speak to the university’s ability to function. We’re going to ask Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members, faculty and students not to cross the picket line. Some will, some won’t. But the net result is going to be chaos.”

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