Written by Alia Karim
Aramark food service workers at York University and University of Toronto Scarborough, members of UNITE HERE Local 75, began an indefinite strike on February 16, 2017. The starting wage at Aramark is currently $12.21/hour and the workers are asking that their base wages be raised to $15 immediately, along with paid sick time and better benefits for workers. They are also demanding the end to anti-black racism, harassment, sexism, and Islamophobia by Aramark managers in the workplace. Management has pressured workers to go back to work and it is very likely that they will use replacement workers (also known as scabs) to try to break the strike.
At York, the Cross-campus Alliance and student groups have organized rallies, marches, solidarity coffee servings, and class talks. They’re asking for community support by signing a letter at York15.ca to pressure York administration to negotiate with Aramark for a better deal for the workers.
Alia Karim of the TYFPC sat down with Melissa Sobers, an Aramark worker at Rogers Centre and representative of UNITE HERE Local 75, to discuss the strike.
Q: Why are these workers are on strike and what are they demanding?
Workers at University of Toronto Scarborough (UofT) campus and at York are on strike because their collective agreements have been up since September of last year. This has been building from countless years of harassment, intimidation, discrimination, and abuse in the workplace that has brought them to this point.
They’ve gained so much momentum in terms of student and staff support that they feel it’s their time. Now since people have been mobilizing and helping them out, they’re seeing it visibly now and they have the confidence to go out on strike.
There’s over 200 workers at York and 60 workers at UofT Scarborough. A lot of them live in the Jane and Finch area. A lot of them are living in ‘paycheque-to-paycheque’ poverty. That is what’s led to this kind of climax where they’ve demanding better work and living conditions.
They’re demanding $15/hour starting wages upon ratification of the new agreement, plus $1 dollar increase for the next 3 years, so by the end of it they should be at $18/hour. They’re asking for better paid sick time without the need for a doctor’s note or expensive medical certificates.
And they’re asking for respect and dignity. That’s stated in the university’s governance policies but it’s not put in practice in these workplaces by the managers. It’s ridiculous to know that they’re abused, verbally and physically, in the ways that they are on campus. They’re asking for the end of that.
Q: Can you talk more about that and the racism and Islamophobia that they’ve experienced at work?
The vast majority of our workers are racialized women. Most of them have experienced harassment and intimidation from managers, physically pushing them to work harder, or they’ll be punished in some sort of way like cutting their hours. As an Aramark worker I see that myself at the Rogers Centre. But when you’re working for about $12/hour you can’t afford to have one hour cut!
There have also been instances where managers have told workers that they are going to stop hiring black workers in their kitchens. Workers have been told they’re not going to be promoted because they’re visibly Muslim and they wear a hijab. There have been pregnant workers who have bullied and harassed to continue working even though they needed a break. People are not given adequate breaks, or breaks at all, even though they’re entitled to them. They’re worked to the bone.
The managers have also said that they can’t talk to university administration. They’re seen as subhuman to the rest of the university community.
There’s been a lot of nasty stories I’ve hear from these people that are mostly racialized women. It’s really heartbreaking to hear that. But they’re not weak people—they’re fighting back! They’ve brought it to management and they haven’t done anything so now they’re bringing their fight to the university community.
Q: What is going to happen to other UNITE HERE Local 75 members across Toronto?
There are a number of Aramark locations that are going up for contract negotiations. Upper Canada College is already up and they’re working on organizing their 100% strike vote. Rogers Centre, where I work—we’ve been out of a contract since last September—they’re looking to get a strike there. There’s also Toronto French School. And some non-Aramark places like Compass at St. Michael’s at UofT—they’re looking to join this momentum. They all have the same demands.
Q: How can we support the strike?
If you have family members or friends who go to these institutions tell them to boycott Aramark. Put pressure on the York and UofT Scarborough administration as much as you can! The best way is to sign our letter to President Shoukri and York administration at York15.ca. It takes less than a minute and it’s a great way to put pressure on the university—the administration hires Aramark as a subcontractor so they could negotiate a better deal with Aramark that honours the workers’ demands.
You can also come out on the picket lines at both universities. Physical presence is really helpful to workers and it also shows the university the strong allyship these workers have. So come out and show your support on the picket line!
Where are we now?
Striking cafeteria workers working for Aramark at York University voted to ratify the tentative settlement on March 6, 2017. This settlement means an immediate raise in their pay cheques of more than 10% for most workers. Within a year no worker will be making less than $15 an hour. In addition, full- and part-time workers have won immediate free dental coverage and, by the end of the agreement all workers will enjoy full and free health benefits for themselves and their families. Congrats to these workers!
University of Toronto Scarborough campus workers are still on strike. For the latest updates on their strike, and to support these workers, see http://www.uniteherelocal75.org/ and Unite Here Local 75’s Facebook page.