In the basement of McLaughlin College at York University, a strike vote was being held for 250 food service workers. Volunteers sat at ballot boxes in a corner of the big cafeteria, while workers stopped to vote and to chat. The multiethnic workforce, unionized by UNITE HERE Local 75, looked a lot like the composition of York's student body; York students work jobs like these, and have family members and friends with jobs like these.
Some of these workers, whom I spoke with on the day of the strike vote in December, have been at York for more than 20 years. One of the workers passed me a little booklet containing the current collective agreement between the union and employer Aramark, a corporate giant whose contract with York — mirroring many others it holds with universities across North America — provide it a monopoly over campus food services. Flipping to the back I saw a pay scale that starts around minimum wage and goes up by what looks like pennies. Inching up from $12 by increments of 10 cents, it tops out well below a living wage for Toronto.
Accompanying the workers were campaigners (mainly staff and students) for York University's “Fight for $15 and Fairness,” part of a bigger movement across North America for a $15 minimum wage. Also present were members of the “Real Food, Real Jobs” coalition, which links the issue of workers who make and serve the food on campus at low wages with concern for the students who, once they make it to the campus, become a captive market with few options for food that is organic, fresh, local, and affordable.
Workers held a festive one-day strike at York University on Feb. 2, 2017. At the school’s central square, students, faculty, and staff gathered. One group held a sign suggesting that it was “time to cook up class struggle” and “serve up some social justice.” Representatives from other campus unions spoke and held the UNITE HERE sign, “On Strike for Justice.” A subsequent indefinite strike began on Feb. 16.
Organizing for dignity
With the existing pay scale, wages and benefits are major points of contention in bargaining. But so are patterns of abusive management behaviour.
Whereas students and faculty members at York worry about issues such as the curtailing of freedom of academic expression and the erosion of collegial and democratic governance in the face of administrative encroachment, York's food service workers face a straightforward corporate workplace that just happens to be on a university campus. Some of what they face would be shocking to the trainers and facilitators at the campus human rights centre. I have heard more than a few examples.
Sick leave provisions in the collective agreement allow for up to three sick days without a doctor's note, but workers told me that management always demands an elaborate certificate that can only be acquired for a fee. In theory, they can get a reimbursement for the certificate. In practice, trekking to the doctor and paying up front doesn't leave a sick worker with much time or energy to recover from illness.
Under the collective agreement, those who work a certain number of hours are afforded benefits. As is the case at other workplaces, management carefully keeps workers’ hours just below the limit to minimize the number of workers who qualify.
Bathroom breaks are carefully timed and monitored. One worker recalled a manager waiting for her outside the stall.
One manager has become notorious among union members for referring to black and brown workers as “you people,” allegedly even saying he doesn't want to hire any more black workers. Members also say that Muslim workers have been told they won’t be promoted because of their religion.
As at any big university, York's workforce is divided among many different unions. The food service workforce is also divided: Aramark runs only a portion of the food outlets on campus. The power and promise of the strike is less in the disruption of day-to-day life and more in the possibility of uniting groups across campus to push for a fair deal.
Because food service is subcontracted, York University is not the employer in this dispute. The notorious Aramark is. But the organizations in the cross-campus alliance supporting food service workers argue that York's administration has the leverage to ensure Aramark provides a fair contract for its workers. This could mean York would pay more for its contract with Aramark, but it’s within the university’s means.
York is best when it tries to be York — public, multiethnic, social-justice oriented, and interdisciplinary — and not when it tries to emulate other universities. But if a bit of inspiration is necessary, last year students at a university from Canada's neighbouring country held a walkout and sit-in to support dining hall workers, which led to an improved contract.
Alliances between students and workers for a $15 minimum wage, for real food and for real jobs, are happening across the continent. York has a chance to join this movement and to lead by example.