As graduates celebrated convocation, hunger strikers camped out with tents on the southeast corner of King’s College Circle.
From June 9 to June 15, UNITE HERE Local 75, which represents food services workers on campus employed by Aramark, led a hunger strike to protest the university’s transition to internal food operations.
Inside Convocation Hall, the university handed out flyers to graduates and their families explaining that the commotion outside was due to the conflict over the transition of food service workers from a subcontract with Aramark to employment by the university itself, effective July 1.
Aramark workers have been in conflict with the university since January, when it was announced that the University of Toronto will take over food services at UTSG after its contract expires in July. Issues of guaranteed reemployment, the severity of probationary periods, the continuity of workplace seniority, and the debate over which union should represent the workers surround the transition.
Participating in the hunger strike
There were seven participants in the hunger strike, which included food services workers employed elsewhere and UNITE HERE international organizing director David Sanders, who said he would participate “halfway.”
Two of the participants were food services workers employed at U of T: Maria Goretti Frias, a campus cafeteria worker for over twenty years and Geneve Blackwood, who has worked as a cook at Sid’s Café for 15 years.
Frias told The Varsity before the strike that she was “very nervous, honestly very nervous. It’s going to affect our personal life.”
She continued, “We feel like we are mistreated. We are on probation, and they are taking our seniority over 30 years.”
“We’re trying to get through a point across campus,” said Blackwood. “They’re stripping us of everything and we don’t think that is right. They’re treating us as we’re new workers and we’ve been working for so long. It’s like we’re starting all over again for the same job we’ve been doing for years.”
The 250 Aramark workers have all been re-hired and they will represent the majority of the work force. There is a 90-day probationary period once they start employment under U of T; they will retain their original “date of hire” and receive a new “start date” under CUPE 3261.
Changing employers, conditions
Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour. They will also receive U of T employee benefits, which include health plans, pension plans, vacation time, tuition waiver for spouses and children, and childcare assistance fund.
“CUPE also negotiated to ensure that the current Aramark employees are covered by the health plan as of day 1 of employment instead of the second month of employment as required by the Collective Agreement,” said CUPE 3261 president Allan James in an email to The Varsity.
“The most immediate issue is probation,” said Sanders. “During probation, you have zero job security, and for any reason at all, your employer can decide that you are not a good fit and therefore you are terminated. It is very normal for people to not make it through probation.”
On top of the concerns he expressed over the probation, Sanders claimed that some of the workers will not retain their jobs.
[pullquote-features]Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour.[/pullquote-features]
“The university announced at the very beginning that they expected that only 85 per cent of the people would continue with the university, implying that 15 per cent won’t make it through probation,” he said.
James explained that CUPE 3261 is in negotiations with the university to waive the probationary period. “In my four years as president of CUPE Local 3261, I have not heard of an employee being let go during the probationary period,” he added.
Anne Macdonald, the director of ancillary services, told The Varsity that the university administration remain uncertain about the origin of the 85 per cent retention statistic; the university has issued statements to the contrary.
Macdonald clarified that during the first town hall meeting between the university and the workers, a university top chef mentioned that 85 per cent of the workers would experience no change to their current duties, but that 15 per cent would experience some changes to their job requirements. Most of these changes would centre around workers handling fresh and local food, which was not the case under Aramark’s contract.
“For sure, we did not say that 85 per cent of the staff would retain their jobs and 15 per cent would go,” Macdonald said.
James echoed this sentiment: “We have no idea where anyone is getting this idea. We have directly asked U of T about this rumour and they have categorically denied the idea of only 85% of the employees making it through the probationary period.”
[pullquote-default]“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. ”[/pullquote-default]
UNITE HERE and CUPE 3261
At UNITE HERE’s recent rallies, several protesters held signs that read ‘CUPE 3261: Workers should help workers’ and ‘CUPE 3261: Why are you letting U of T hurt us?’
“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. That does not count as fighting as hard as you can to protect the interests of these members.”
Macdonald acknowledged this tense relationship: “I don’t think [relations between the two unions have] been friendly discussions.”
James said, “CUPE Local 3261 has no fight with UNITE HERE Local 75.”
The University of Toronto has a legally-binding agreement with CUPE 3261 for its employees’ collective bargaining. According to Macdonald, if UNITE HERE successfully legally challenged this agreement, that union could assume responsibility for representing the university’s food service workers. Until then, CUPE 3261 will be the sole representative of food services workers on campus.