Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cafeteria Workers Prepare for Union Contract Fight

DePaul Cafeteria Workers (left to right) Quiendolyn Wilkens, Alan Camacho, Nathan Arnold, and Chanteen Hardaway.

On November 7th, over 100 cafeteria workers, students and activists gathered at the Stir It Up Conference held at DePaul University in Chicago to organize for a better contract. DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the United States and it has a contract for its cafeteria with Chartwells, a division of Compass group. Compass is the largest catering corporation in the world with an annual profit close to 7 billion British pounds. Compass group has food service operations in schools, corporate offices and major events throughout the world.

Even though Compass is a Fortune 500 company, with a CEO who makes more than 750 thousand dollars a year, Compass treats the cafeteria workers who make its wealth like the liver they often chop. Low pay, substandard health care, lack of proper training and poor management are some of the complaints of many of the workers at the DePaul cafeteria.

Represented by Service Workers United and Serviced by UNITE/HERE Local 1, the workers contract expires in March and they looked forward to changing DePaul's cafeteria and gaining a stronger contract.

Chanteen Hardaway has worked as a cashier at DePaul's cafeteria for six years, and was nervous before the conference because she had never spoken in public before. During her speech, she broke into tears describing how, “It really hurts me because I know I can't afford a lot of stuff for my kids. I just feel that it's really unfair.” She said, “We need better wages and free health care. I want to take my kids to the doctor without needing to use public aid.” Hardaway emphasized Chartwells' responsibility to its workers, “I shouldn't have to use the government when I work for a company that makes multi-billion dollars a year.”

Over 100 students and community members attended the conference.

Chartwells worker Alan Camacho pointed out that the average wage for Chartwells workers was half the living wage for one person and that many workers had families that they needed to support, “it really impacted me when DePaul was running coat drives and feed the homeless and hungry [food drives], and right there in the student center, in the cafeteria, people's kids are going hungry.”

Camacho explained, “there's someone working here for 20 years and they make the same amount of money I do, and I've been here 4 years.” Further, “the managers get bonuses based on how much money they spend, and if they spend less money [on workers] they get more money [for themselves].”

69 year old Nathan Arnold has been cooking for over 50 years and worked at DePaul's cafeteria for the last 10 years. Arnold explained, “My Academy Award is the smile on your face after you eat one of my meals.” However he was baffled by how Chartwells treated it's employees, “I just didn't understand how people were allowed to get away with certain things. How they treated the employees. I hadn't been here 2 weeks and I heard a supervisor cursing out a pastry chef and a sous chef.”

Arnold told the Conference attendees, “I made more money 30 years ago than I do now. It's sad how the corporate world can take and abuse when we supply their need. We place the caviar on their plate and they shove us crumbs.”

Changes in management cost Quiendolyn Wilkens $400 a week, as Chartwells cut her hours from 45 hours a week to 32 hours a week. She described how after requesting for more hours, management retaliated by cutting her hours more. With two children to raise, she became a “mad black woman on a mission” even though she initially knew little about the union, she was one of the first to become active in it. “It wasn't about me, it was about everybody else that was going through what I was going through.”

According to Wilkens, “My manager can not come down and make up quesadilla just like that., They can not do the work that I do.”

The Union has been able to help workers improve their shop. According to Hardaway, “when the mangers try to fire us for something stupid, we have the union behind us. They [the managers] try to come up with some pretty ironic stuff to fire us about. Some people have gotten their jobs back.”

Camacho described a fight the union had with the managers. Chartwells would hire temporary workers from temp agencies to prevent regular employees from becoming eligible for health and vacation benefits or from gaining overtime pay. When Camacho and other workers confronted management about it, they were threatened, even though the contract prohibited this temp worker practice. After confronting the manager over this issue, the company hired 4 new permanent employees. This is an example of the union fighting for the unemployed in the worst recession since the 1930's.

UNITE/HERE Local 1 researcher Kyle Schafer explains Compass groups wealth.

The cafeteria workers at DePaul have a union contract through Service Workers United. SWU was a joint organizing project through UNITE/HERE and SEIU to unionize food service and cafeteria workers. The different bargaining units are serviced by different SEIU or UNITE/HERE locals, in DePaul's case, the contract is serviced by UNITE/HERE local 1. The Chartwells workers may switch their bargaining agent from SWU to HERE Local 1, as frustrations mount over the weak contracts that SWU negotiated.

In a sign of solidarity, DePaul students who live at the social justice themed Vincent and Louis House cooked lunch for conference attendees, including cafeteria workers who usually cook food for the students.

Arnold was of the initial organizers for the union and stated that he did it “not for the benefit of me, but for the benefit of you the students who are going to need future jobs that your going to need, for my co-workers that are still going to be working in 10 20 years.” An excellent point considering that several baristas at Chartwells were former students at DePaul.

Arnold stated, “I am so proud to see that the students are coming forward with this union and doing something for themselves. We all are the union and together we'll make this world a better place.”

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