At Georgetown University this year, students became aware of stark differences in treatment between Aramark’s Georgetown and American University food services employees. At American, food service workers received more health care coverage while paying nearly half of what Aramark employees at Georgetown paid for health care.
These disparities were unacceptable. Colleges are supposed to instill values in their students that make for a just society, and those values must be reflected in the institutions’ decisions to protect or neglect basic fairness. Georgetown and other institutions of higher education must therefore support workers’ rights. But since our current capitalist system places profit above anything else, Aramark and other large corporations will continue to treat workers with minimal respect and pay them as little as possible until people speak up and demand better.
Students at Georgetown chose to speak up. As part of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), we responded to these working conditions by launching an Aramark campaign. The end goal? To improve the working conditions in the campus dining hall and to organize the food court and on-campus hotel workers (all of whom work for Aramark) so that they had the opportunity to join the union, UNITE HERE Local 23. The workers demanded consistent 40-hour workweeks; raises of $0.75 per year to the hourly wage; more protections for immigrant workers; affordable health care; and for language of dignity and respect to be used in grievance processes, because too many workers experienced disrespect, such as racial discrimination and verbal abuse, and lacked a process to address their treatment.
Our first action occurred in December when the GSC hosted a holiday party for food court workers. There, we collected addresses under the guise of a holiday raffle in anticipation of future house visits to convince them to join the union. Until a majority of the workers had agreed to join the union, this entire process had to be kept secret from Georgetown administrators and Aramark supervisors, so as not to put workers’ jobs in jeopardy. To boost student support for workers and put pressure on the university, we circulated a sign-on petition for students, faculty, and other community members which outlined the workers’ demands. After 3 weeks, we had collected over 2,000 signatures, or one-quarter of the undergraduate population.
Momentum for the campaign increased in February, when GSC organized a rally of more than 100 students to deliver the signed petition to Aramark’s management office in the food court, known as Hoya Court. Students and workers also delivered union cards signed by workers in Hoya Court and Einstein Brothers Bagels demonstrating their desire to organize under UNITE HERE. Students and workers in attendance marched to Hoya Court to show their commitment to ensuring Aramark gives the workers the dignity and respect they deserve.
Next, we shifted our focus to the workers at the Georgetown Hotel, which is also run by Aramark. Collecting signed union cards from hotel employees was an arduous task, made worse by the managers’ attempts to obstruct organizing. According to workers, Aramark managers had held captive audience meetings to intimidate and dissuade them from joining the union. Upon hearing these allegations, a group of students took to the hotel’s front desk and demanded that the supervisors respect the workers’ right to a fair organizing process. Eventually, after countless hours of students standing outside of the hotel’s back entrances and going to workers’ homes, a majority of hotel workers signed union cards with UNITE HERE.
Ultimately, the workers won almost all of their demands. Among the gains: workers in the dining hall won an increase in the minimum wage by $2.00 over the next 4 years; broader health care coverage with lower premiums; greater protection for immigrant workers; a sustainability committee that oversees the quality of food and how it is disposed; paid training for all cooks; and life insurance and a scholarship fund. The food court and hotel workers were guaranteed a fair bargaining process as they too joined UNITE HERE. Seeing the workers’ reactions to the final contract was an incredible culmination of a year’s worth of organizing––high-fiving a joyous hotel housekeeper when he finally achieved what he had wanted for so long was a true moment of triumph.
Solidarity between students and workers is immensely powerful. One of the best ways to convince workers that they could safely join the union was showing them videos of students rallying on their behalf. The Georgetown administration, prodded by GSC’s student mobilization, issued a letter reiterating the protection of the workers’ right to a fair unionization process. This made an enormous difference in showing non-union workers that the university had their backs.
GSC’s guiding philosophy is to act in solidarity with the workers, according to their expressed needs. This campaign demonstrates that the best change comes when workers and allies organize and create a united front to sway powerful companies like Aramark. Without hearing the demands of the people, wealthy corporations and individuals will continue to dominate at the expense of human life and dignity. Tangible change can come from a small but committed group of people working to expose abuses and to transform the way we think about power.