Fired SFU food service workers fight for their jobs

By Daniel Tseghay

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All photos by Octavian Cadabeschi, UNITE HERE Local 40 Researcher

In early February, 160 food service workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 40, at Simon Fraser University (SFU), received termination notices that take effect in April. The decision, by the contractor Chartwells, a part of Compass Group Canada, affects workers at the Dining Hall, Mackenzie Cafe, Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, and caterers for SFU events, among others.

While their contract expired in the fall and negotiations were under way, this decision came as a surprise. According to one member, termination notices weren’t issued in the past when there were changes in contractors.

Before the announcement that the workers would be terminated, it had already become clear that Chartwells would not be the only company bidding for a contract with the University. If one of the two other food suppliers won the contract, by charging the University less most likely, the current workers may not be hired by them. They could see lower wages, a loss of benefits, and would certainly lose their seniority.

“Initially workers were reassured that everything would be fine but in a not particularly clear way,” says Octavian Cadabeschi, a researcher with UNITE HERE, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “The organizer from the union was basically told that everyone would keep their jobs and their wages would be the same but it wasn’t clear what that meant.” 2

On January 27th, when the termination announcement hadn’t yet been made but their future at SFU was still in question, workers engaged in two separate protests on January 27th, where they brought a petition with around 1,300 signatures to president Andrew Petter. The roughly 70 workers who participated in a delegation to the president’s office asked tough questions while there.

“The workers spoke to the president and the president clarified that basically it had been required in the new applications for a new food service contract that workers would be retained in some way, and in some way wages would be the same and equal,” says Cadabeschi. “But again we haven’t actually seen any of these documents. It’s not clear what that means. Does it mean everyone’s exact job will be retained? Does it mean that people will be given an offer? The offer might be for an equivalent job or a totally different job. It’s not clear what any of this meant; but, very specifically, the president was quite clear that the existing contract would not be protected. People’s seniority would not be protected.”

Cadabeschi adds that the issue of benefits weren’t clarified by the president. Whether they’d be protected regardless which company wins the contract is unclear at the moment.

“The University has the power to guarantee people’s jobs, to guarantee an exact replica of the existing contract as part of the conditions of running the food service in the future,” Cadabeschi. “That’s what our members are pushing that they do and that they demonstrate they’re going to do in some concrete way beyond just vague promises.”

The fact that people’s jobs, seniority, and benefits are up in the air is bad enough, but, with a number of the workers being long-time employees, it’s especially insulting.

Monique Helfrich, for instance, has worked at SFU’s resident Dining Hall since 2007. Before that, she worked at Broadway Tech for 3 years and at Capilano College for 15, both under Compass.

“I worked hard for this company for all these years,” says Helfrich in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “I like my job, I like the company, and obviously they’re pleased with my work. I don’t want to be pounding down on doors at the age of 56, starting all over, waiting a year for holidays, with no dental, no medical, no seniority. Everything gone.”

And Helfrich isn’t alone. Helfrich says that some have worked there for 30 or 35 years and many have worked for over 20 years. Many of them, Helfrich, rely heavily on their medical benefits.

Helfrich believes Chartwells should get win the contract given that the worker have done great work. But Helfrich notes that it’s all about the bottom line. “When I worked at Capilano,” Helfrich says, “they had a contract for 25 years so everybody thought “oh yeah, they’ll take us.” It all came down to the dollar and Aramark got it. I was one of the lucky ones that Compass took with me to another unit. Not everyone’s that fortunate.”

But despite this, public pressure still matters. As Cadabeschi noted, the University does have the power to guarantee people’s jobs and all aspects of a contract, regardless of which company wins the contract. And the University can be swayed by a concerted effort from the unionized workers as well as community members and SFU students.

Around the winter break, Monica Petek, a Political Science graduate student, was asked to sign the petition the union was distributing. Since then she’s helped mobilize student support.

“There are people I see every day when I’m grabbing coffee,” says Petek in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “When I heard this I think of multiple people I’m familiar with or know by name. These people are such a part of the community. They’re not disposable.”

“Student, faculty, and community support will be crucial,” Petek continues. “It would be relatively easy if they could isolate the 160 workers, covering up what is happening. Once it’s out in the open and you have this community ready to say “No, that is not ok. We’re not happy about that. We don’t think it’s acceptable” we can apply a lot of pressure on this administration. I don’t think they were counting on that.”3

And so on February 24th, the food service workers will be rallying at SFU’s Convocation Mall, demanding that their jobs and seniority are guaranteed and that, whoever the contractor is, they remain unionized workers with a union contract.

“All this has put a lot of stress on people already,” Helfrich says. “Not knowing what they’re going to do, where they’re going to go, how they’re going to pay bills. It’s an awful feeling. We need our jobs. We need security.”

For details of the February 24th rally click here.

You can sign the petition to SFU President Petter here.

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