Nova Scotia food service workers cook up a union

NSCCgrpFEATBy Robert Devet

Overworked and not paid enough, food service workers at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) campuses in Dartmouth and Halifax set their minds on joining a union.

Earlier this month the 25 or so Chartwells workers voted on joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2. SEIU Local 2 represents more than 12,000 workers across Canada, including food service workers, janitors, property service workers, security guards, bartenders, restaurant servers, and hotel and casino workers.

The vote hasn’t been certified yet, but organizers and workers are confident the numbers are there.

Pay is a big issue for the workers. Or rather, the lack of pay.

“I just got bumped up to $12 per hour,” says first cook Gerard Hardy. “And I have 15 years worth of experience, I am one step away from being a chef.”

I have a hard time paying bills,” Hardy adds. “ Last month I had my phone cut off, it was either pay my cell phone bill or pay the rent. I figured I needed a roof more than I needed a phone. $700 every two weeks, nobody can live on that.”

Together with low pay, workers often find themselves working in a short staffed crew.

“Four people called in sick this morning. We came in at 7 this morning, as scheduled, and we got slapped in the face with it, usually there is somebody at 6 am getting things started, but not this time There  was a whole hour of work we had to catch up on as fast as we could,” says Hardy.

Safety is another major concern.

“A while ago Gerard here got burned really bad, says Jacob Burns. “I ran to the kitchen to get the first aid kit that I assumed just about every kitchen in the world has at this point. But there was no first aid kit of any sort.”

“After that, they ordered one, but it still didn’t have burn gel.  I don’t think there is an eyewash station either,” Burns says.

Earlier this year Chartwells took over the food service contract at the Halifax and Dartmouth Community Colleges. That contract was previously held by Aramark. To their dismay Chartwells then offered employment to long-time food service workers there at a significantly lower pay-rate, the union says.

But pissing off workers makes for fertile ground for a union drive.

“There were deep resentments about the switch over,” says organizer Darius Mirshahi. “Some people told me that they would never have thought of supporting a union, but when they had to take a pay cut and lose their sick days after the switch, they began to think that maybe unions aren’t so bad after all.”

In the early days quite a few people were supportive but worried. Would they get fired? That nervousness didn’t last long, Mirshahi says.

“We lucked out that there are some great people here who have been with unions before, and who have seen how that makes things better,” says Mirshahi. “And there were a lot of strong leaders here, all these different people all helping in their own way, talking to each other and keeping morale up, and helping people overcome their fear.”

It’s not just Chartwells that’s the problem, says Burns, the NSCC could insist that companies pay their workers fairly. By making cost a big part of the bidding process it is forcing bidders to cut costs and drive wages down.

“The system is flawed,” says Burns,” they keep lowering the bar and we get the shitty end of the stick.”

“The only reason you still have employees here is because of the union. The union is the is light at the end of the tunnel for them. I don’t know how many people I talked to who said if it wasn’t for this union drive I’m going to quit. I sometimes feel like telling management you should be thanking the union rather than trying to fight us,” Mirshahi says.

This story first published on the Nova Scotia Advocate

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