By Scott Strasser, October 3 2016 —
Negotiations over a collective agreement between the University of Calgary’s food service provider and the union that represents its workers have reached a boiling point.
American food service and catering company Aramark is currently bargaining with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 (UFCW) — the union that represents Aramark employees at the U of C.
Aramark operates the residence Dining Centre, runs certain food vendors and provides catering services on campus. The company took over from Chartwells as the U of C’s food service provider in March 2015 and has a five-year contract with the university.
Aramark’s employees at the U of C unionized in April 2016, joining the UFCW. Turnout for the secret ballot vote was just shy of 84 per cent, with roughly 90 per cent of voters in favour of unionization.
Once the union was certified, UFCW became the bargaining agent for Aramark employees.
UFCW chief advisor Thomas Hesse is the spokesperson at the bargaining table for Aramark workers at the U of C. He said the bargaining process has “not come very far” since the union was certified in April.
“We came to the conclusion that we just have not come very far since we’ve been certified and it’s been a six-month period of time,” Hesse said. “At the current rate it would take months and months to bargain a collective agreement.”
The UFCW claims Aramark wants to exclude student workers and supervisors with the company from certain union rights.
According to a UFCW newsletter from last April, Aramark employees at the U of C joined the union to address mandatory deductions from their paycheques for meals, issues surrounding vacation pay and work schedules, as well as better wages.
“Basically, the fact is that bargaining is not moving along and employees are discontent,” Hesse said.
Hesse said roughly a third of Aramark’s employees at the U of C are students. He also said employees are unhappy with Aramark’s health benefit plan.
“They were relatively satisfied with the benefit plan provided to them by Chartwells. There may be some issues that need to be resolved there, but we put Aramark on notice that we would at least like to return to a position where the employees had the benefits they had before. They haven’t yet tabled anything on that,” he said.
Aramark and the UFCW have been meeting to bargain a collective agreement since April. The latest meetings between the two parties took place at Hotel Alma on Sept. 22–23.
“The indicators at this point, at the six month mark, are that this could go sideways easily and quickly. A strike vote may be a necessary step,” Hesse said.
If a strike vote occurs and a majority of employees vote in favour of strike action, Aramark employees could potentially go on strike with 72 hours notice.
If Aramark employees were to strike at the U of C, food services could be put on hold at the Dining Centre, Zoca, Bento, Bistro Alma, the Starbucks on the Foothills campus, Made For You and the four Tim Hortons at the U of C. The company’s catering operation on campus could also be put on hold.
“Employees would be picketing at the university and multiple locations,” Hesse said. “Essentially there’d be no food service.”
Hesse said he hopes it doesn’t come to a strike, but that it could be necessary.
“[A strike] should be a last resort, but how do you negotiate a collective agreement?” Hesse said. “Aramark says they respect employees’ right to unionize. And then they arrive at the bargaining table and say ‘we want to bargain you out.’ In some ways, why wouldn’t you take a stand?”
Aramark declined an interview request, stating they do not publicly discuss specifics around their negotiations.
“I can assure you that we continue to bargain in good faith and remain committed to reaching an agreement that works for everyone,” wrote Aramark’s vice-president of communications Karen Cutler in an email.
Cutler said the company has no issues with the unionization of their workplace.
“We have a great deal of respect for our employees and the integrity of the collective bargaining process, which means we consider negotiations to be private and do not negotiate publicly through the media or third parties,” she said. “This is a common tactic used by union negotiators that we do not engage in. I can assure you that we have had meetings with union leaders and the bargaining committee and we intend to keep working toward an agreement that works for everyone.”
According to Hesse, the UFCW is planning a campaign to bring awareness to the issues at the U of C, including the launch of a new website — dignity4dinner.ca.
“We’re looking at multi-tiered communication to create an environment where employers like Aramark are going to have to sit down and say to themselves ‘we have to take this seriously’,” Hesse said.
The UFCW and Aramark are also currently bargaining a collective agreement at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus.