Never before in the history of Springfield College has there been a union representing a group on campus. That could change on October 24, when the ARAMARK dining service workers from Cheney Dining Hall and the Richard B. Flynn Campus Union vote in an election for a union.
The roots for a union were first planted around May, when workers began meeting once every other week to discuss the possibility of forming their own representative organization. The reasons were simple. Workers wanted to receive better pay, better health care, and be given the respect that they felt they deserved.
One of those workers that took part in these meetings is a familiar face in Cheney. Cashier/Health and Safety Chairman Paul Harris is often the first worker people encounter when entering the dining hall, and is always ready to offer students, faculty and visitors a smile and lively hello. He is known for his solid rapport with the dining hall’s clientele, and can be seen fist bumping and shaking hands with students. Yet beneath his positive outward demeanor, Harris is struggling with the current working conditions.
Harris has been working for ARAMARK at Springfield College for nearly 10 years, beginning in February 2004. His starting salary in 2004 was approximately $9 an hour. It is currently a little under $11.
“It’s tough. I have my own apartment. I live alone. I’m single. I pay rent, electric, gas. Especially during the summer it’s really hard. You have to basically get on welfare,” Harris said. “I’ve been at my job 10 years and I’m at a poverty level where I have to get food stamps [during the summer].”
Harris is one of more than 50 ARAMARK workers who have pledged their support to the union effort. They demonstrated this outward support by signing union cards and having their photos taken.
As for ARAMARK, the company’s office at Springfield College issued a statement to The Student yesterday afternoon regarding their stance. It reads, “ARAMARK has a great deal of respect for our employees, and while we prefer that our employees deal directly with us on issues concerning their employment, we fully support their democratic right to understand all of the issues and choose for themselves on the matter of union representation.”
ARAMARK is a national organization that according to its website is “a leader in professional services, providing award-winning food services, facilities management, and uniform and career apparel…”
On the company’s home page they list the following recognitions for 2013: Fortune World’s Most Admired Companies, Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles, and the World’s Most Ethical Companies.
Forming a union is a legal action supported by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers’ rights. The section states that, “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…”
As long as the proper conduct is displayed during the process of forming a union, it cannot be legally stopped by any other organization. Springfield College as an institution has chosen to remain neutral in regards to the situation.
“The College will not take a position either way with regard to the appropriateness of a union for this employee group. It is a very important and personal decision for each of the employees to make, and the College respects their right to do so,” President Mary-Beth Cooper and Vice President for Finance and Administration John Mailhot stated in a campu-wide email.
Mailhot explained the college’s hopes further in an interview. “We would expect, and have been assured by ARAMARK, that regardless of the ultimate vote either for or against a union, that they will continue to provide our students, staff and visitors the highest level of food options and customer service going forward.”
Harris is one of many ARAMARK employees who decided to band together to support their similar beliefs. Erskine Kelly, a soup cook who has been working for ARAMARK at Springfield for nine years, has also experienced difficulties getting by on his salary when he was putting his daughter through school.
“Those days were real hard,” Kelly said. “Bringing home like, $150 a week is hard to pay bills.”
Harris and Kelly have been serving on the union’s 12-person organizing committee, which has helped run the meetings alongside New England Joint UNITE HERE organizers Caitlin DuBois and Brendan Carey, whose organization represents workers throughout the U.S. and Canada who work in the food service industry, among others. The workers have been sharing and spreading their stories to anyone who will listen.
“It was very compelling listening to the workers. I felt their stories were very authentic,” Dr. Margaret Lloyd, a professor in the Humanities Department, said. “It was also clear to me that they love Springfield College. They love working here, but their working conditions need to be improved, and they feel strongly about that.”
Money is only one of the workers’ concerns, however. Just as central to their cause is their fight for respect.
“If you do something wrong, instead of pulling you aside or into the office, they’re telling you right on the floor in front of the students. That is one of our policies. That is a no-no. They should be pulling you inside the office and reprimanding you [there],” Harris said.
Harris’ biggest complaint is that the workers are the ones who play an integral role in the way the dining hall is viewed by students and faculty who use it every day. Cheney is routinely voted by students in the top tier of dining halls in the region year after year for its service and overall experience.
“Management is…in the office doing the business part. We’re the ones who are greeting, we’re the ones who are cooking the food, we’re the ones who are really making the students happy,” Harris said.
The workers’ cause has been picked up and supported by faculty members and students, many of whom just recently heard about the unionization efforts. They have helped spread awareness by passing out “We love our cafeteria workers” buttons. Lloyd, along with Dr. Julia Chevan of the Physical Therapy department, were two faculty members who were informed of the possible union in late August. Both attended meetings organized by the workers to learn more about the situation.
“I always want to hear what all of my colleagues are thinking about in terms of their work and their endeavors at the institution,” Chevan said.
The fact that these colleagues do not share the same titles as Chevan seems to make very little difference to her or Lloyd, who voiced similar opinions. A colleague is a colleague, regardless of position.
“The people who need the strongest representation tend to be the people who are the lowest paid employees in any given organization,” Chevan said.
“It’s a matter of community support,” Lloyd added. “The mission of the college, which is to educate students in service to a wider world community, means contributing to the kind of world we want to live in, an ethical world, a world that has social justice in it, a world in which all peoples are respected. So, it is important since that is our mission that that is the kind of community that we have on this campus.”
Harris believes that the reason workers remain at the institution despite what he describes as bad working conditions directly relates to this shared sense of community.
“One-hundred and ten percent of the reasons why we stayed here is because of the students and faculty at Springfield College,” Harris said. “We love working here, we just want a change.”
On August 29, many of the dining service workers took a big step to ensuring that they receive that change. They filled out, signed and took photos with union cards to publicly signify their desire to form a union. According to DuBois, after a single day 50 percent of the workers had already filled out cards, and the total now stands closer to 70-80 percent.
The ARAMARK office at Springfield College could have chosen to accept the card check as proof that workers wanted to form a union, but instead they opted for the alternative, which is to schedule an official election that will take place on October 24 at the Fuller Arts Center. The dining service workers are the only people who can vote, and in order for a union to be approved they must record over 51 percent in favor of the union.
ARAMARK’s refusal to accept the card check was a disappointment to some, such as Lloyd, who felt that the situation could have ended peacefully at that moment.
“I had the opinion that it would have been better if ARAMARK had said, ‘You know what, we’re just going to let you have a union because so many workers have signed cards,’” Lloyd said.
A forum will be held today, September 26, with more information about the unionization efforts at 2 p.m. in the Harold C. Smith Room in Judd Gymnasia. Although the fate of the union will have to ultimately wait until October 24, the workers seem resolute in their decision to unionize.
“We’re going to show them again how strong we really are,” Harris said.