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Photo by Justin Quaintance

Lack of support for labour union shows Students’ Union has no longterm vision

By Kate Jacobson, March 11 2017 —

Students’ Union president-elect Branden Cave endorses strikebreaking. Aramark — the U of C’s official food service provider — is currently negotiating a collective agreement with its union. The negotiations are stuck on issues of staff scheduling and dignity in the workplace. Union officials believe that negotiations are reaching a boiling point and have stated that a strike vote is more and more likely.

During the election’s presidential candidate forum, Cave, along with the other candidates, said that in the event of a strike by Aramark workers, he would do everything he could to work with the corporation to break the strike and keep Aramark locations open.

I freely admit that I asked the presidential candidates about this because I wanted to hear a specific answer. It is my view that unions are one of the best ways for workers to protect themselves from being exploited by large companies like Aramark. In my wildest dreams, the SU is an ardent supporter of workers movements. I am not, however, stupid. I expected to hear the presidential candidates vow neutrality in the event of any labour dispute.

Their actual answers — that they would spend student time, effort and money to help a corporation undermine organized labour — were not only morally wrong, but indicative of the SU’s focus on minutiae instead of improving student life on campus in the long run.

It is fundamentally misguided of the SU to work with a corporation to solve — at the expense of workers, many of whom are students — that corporation’s self-created problem. This myopic convenience-pandering speaks to an organizational culture that is more concerned with making sure that students don’t have to go without Tim Hortons for a single day instead of a long-term advancement of student conditions.

This is an endemic problem in the SU, which struggles to express any kind of compelling vision for the future. Current SU vice-president external Tristan Bray recently criticized the provincial government’s tuition freeze, saying that the price should have gone up by the rate of inflation to avoid a gap in the university’s budget. If the SU’s vision for the future is one where already expensive tuition rises every year and workers fighting for better conditions are thrown under the bus so we don’t have to go without a specific brand of coffee for a brief period of time, then count me unimpressed and uninspired.

Of course, the SU doesn’t need to take an ideological position on every issue. I don’t want them taking stances on the Israel-Palestine conflict or the seal hunt. But I do expect the SU to react to things happening on its campus with a clear and articulated vision for the future. Vowing to help a corporation break a strike is the opposite of that.

And, while we’re on the topic of labour disputes — strikes are important because if you are poor, all you can bargain with is your labour and refusing to work shows that your labour has value. Breaking a strike, as the SU would help Aramark do, means taking away the ability of workers to negotiate with their employer on a level playing field.

The SU plans to do this because they think convenience is more important to students than justice. If Aramark cannot provide services because its employees are so unhappy with how they are being treated that they feel they have no other choice but to withdraw their labour, that’s a problem with Aramark.

Punishing workers for Aramark’s failure to negotiate fairly is spineless and unprincipled. It reveals a lot about the SU that the temporary lack of amenities on campus is more of a problem to them than a corporation that fails to treat its workers with dignity and respect. And what it reveals is a student organization that has no vision for the future beyond preserving a failed and insipid status quo.

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