By David Bush
Incredibly loud and extremely joyous, that’s how over 200 food service workers at York University in Toronto kicked off their one-day strike. The Aramark workers, members of Unite Here Local 75, walked off the job yesterday for increased pay, improved benefits and respect at work.
Malka Paracha, a food service supervisor at Aramark, says she is striking for the survival of her family and to support her friends and co-workers at Aramark. She has been working for the company since 2010.
“How can we survive on such low-wages? Paying for medication, groceries, bus fare, rent – nobody can survive on our paycheque,” say Paracha. “When I started working for Aramark I saved my lunch for my kids, because I couldn’t afford lunch for them and myself.”
The starting wage at Aramark is currently $12.21, the workers are demanding base wages be raised to $15 immediately.
Anthony Seet, a chef in the catering department at Aramark, said he was striking for better pay and stronger benefits, but ultimately he is disturbed by how he and his co-workers are being treated. Seet has been working for the last two years at Aramark after graduating from York with an Anthropology degree.
“I am tied of being treated like a second-class citizen,” says Seet. “Our company tries to keep us silent. They treat us like we are worthless and nothing. We are actually told by Aramark that we are worthless and nothing.”
Terryann Morle, a Tim Horton’s supervisor at Aramark, has been working for the company 17 years. She is striking for better wages, respect and better benefits. “We want to show that we are here for everyone, not only for one person, but for all of us,” says Morle.
The workers and their allies rallied at 8am in Central Square, the main Aramark food service location on campus. The normally bustling cafeteria was completely empty as the company shut down most of its services on campus in response to the strike.
Union members and their allies greeted students with free coffee and campaign stickers. The York Federation of Students, the Real Food, Real Jobs coalition and the Cross Campus Alliance organized a free solidarity coffee table in order to engage students about the strike.
“One thing that students often do is to differentiate between students and workers on campus, when in reality we are one. To show solidarity between workers and students is incredibly important,” says Rawan Habib, the Vice-President of Campaigns at the YFS. “Workers impacted by poverty wages, by no benefits, by disrespect in the workplace automatically impacts us as students because we are the future workers.”
The Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign and other student allies helped to hand out thousands of flyers throughout out the day to explain the strike and build support. “”If food service workers win $15 and fairness this helps all workers in the province trying to achieve this,” says Mandeq Ali Jama of the Fight for $15 and Fairness York university club.
Allies have set up the website, york15.ca, that supporters to send a direct message to the York administration to settle the labour dispute in a timely and fair manner. After the morning rally, the workers picketed at the main gate of the university for the rest of the day. At lunch time, students and campus allies organized a solidarity in the student centre.
While the workers are bargaining with Aramark, the company is sub-contracted by York University. The workers believe that the university is responsible for the poor working conditions and low wages and could immediately fix the situation by requiring contractors to deal fairly with their workers.
“It is not just Aramark, it is the university. As an alumni of the university I hold York accountable for what the hell is happening to us,” says Seet.
The one-day strike was designed to put pressure on both the university and Aramark to come to a fair agreement. However, with no bargaining likely to take place over the next couple of days, a full strike is possible next week.
“If we don’t hear back from them, if they are lagging, if we hear plain no, or if they offer us a proposal we are just not plain in agreement with, yes absolutely there is a possibility of a strike next week,” says Melissa Sobers, an organizer and an Aramark worker at Rogers.
Aramark workers with Unite Here Local 75 went on a one-day strike at University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus earlier in the week. In that case Aramark brought in replacement workers. The union believes that it is very likely scabs will be used to try to break any possible future strike.
The workers were not afraid though. “I am feeling real great, I am really pumped up about this,” says Morle. “We are all feeling real great. And we hope students stand strong with us because there fight is my fight and my fight is there fight.”
“I am so excited, I think I am the richest person today,” says Paracha about going on strike. “I believe right now we are one family. It feels like we are united into one fist punching Aramark in the face.”