Food service workers at UTSC continue to strike as talks proceed between UNITE HERE 75, the union representing the workers, and Aramark, the company that holds the contract to provide food services at the campus.
On strike since February 9, UNITE HERE Local 75 has been negotiating with Aramark over what is deems as unfair wages. According to the union’s press release, most of the Aramark employees at UTSC make $11.50 per hour with little to no benefits. The living wage for Toronto was determined to be $18.52 per hour by a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report.
“Our strikers are standing up to end poverty wages on Toronto’s university campuses,” UNITE HERE’s Organizing Director, David K. Sanders, told The Varsity. “Employers like the University of Toronto should not be hiding poverty wages in the shadows of sub-contractors like Aramark or Compass.”
A picket line at UTSG on March 15, planned to encircle King’s College Circle, was cancelled due to developments in the strike negotiations on March 14.
Aramark put a final offer to the workers, which it called “generous.” After two days of deliberation, according to Sanders, the workers “voted 100% to reject the offer.”
According to a strike statement on Aramark’s website, the offer they presented “is the same settlement accepted by Aramark’s associates at York University who are represented by the same Union, UNITE HERE Local 75.”
The York agreement involved all of the workers reaching a $15 per hour wage within a year and benefits for both full-time and part-time employees.
Marc Hollin, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE, told The Varsity that the offer to the Scarborough workers was slightly different than at York and unsatisfactory to the workers’ bargaining group on three fronts.
“The Scarborough workers start further back and take a little bit longer to get to $15 [per hour] than they do at York,” Hollin said. “The main thing,” he continued, “is that the workers know that the direct employees of the university at the St. George campus make $18 or even a bit higher in many cases. So they feel like they deserve to do better.”
Sanders spoke of a poor negotiation environment. “Unfortunately, the University’s sub-contractor refused to engage in bargaining,” he said. “After the union started the day presenting a new position, the University’s sub-contractor responded with a final offer and said that it was going to demand that that offer be put to a vote by the Ministry of Labour.”
Hollin echoed Sanders’ sentiments about the negotiations process. “With the York bargaining, there was actual bargaining, which we’re used to,” he said. “There was kind of a back and forth.” In the case of the Scarborough final offer, however, “the company just put forward a final offer… it’s not the way we would like to bargain,” Hollin stated.
The offer that the workers turned down will now go before the Ontario Ministry of Labour. At this stage in the negotiation process, the government will organize, conduct, and oversee a vote of all the employees in the bargaining unit on Aramark’s final offer.
There have been calls for the university to step in and enforce a commitment to wage fairness. “The University is [an] anchor institution in our community,” wrote John Cartwright, President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in a letter to President Meric Gertler on March 14.
“At a time when decent work in our city is scarce and when we are plagued by growing inequality especially for new Canadians, women, and racialized communities, our anchor institutions have a vital role to play in setting a standard for decent work,” the letter continues.
Sanders said that the union members “expect the University administration to ensure that a U of T education is not built upon a foundation of poverty wages.”
Aramark disagreed on the role of the university in this. “To be clear, these negotiations are between Aramark Canada and the Union and does not involve the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus,” a statement on Aramark’s website reads. “The responsibility for resolution of this matter rests solely on the Union and on Aramark.”
Hollin said that they “expect the university not to allow poverty wages on their campuses.”
“They’re hiding behind the fact that it’s a contractor, but ultimately they pick the contractor,” Hollin continued. “They are responsible.”
Elizabeth Church, a spokesperson for the university, told The Varsity that “this is a labour dispute between Aramark and food service workers employed by Aramark at UTSC” and declined to comment further. Aramark also declined to comment further.