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Labor & Worker Rights Wed Nov 17 2010

"Social Justice Isn't Just For Rock Stars -- It's For Workers, Too."

As part of an effort to re-brand itself, Loyola University Chicago launched a clever ad campaign in 2006 called "Loyola Values," consisting of bold, simple ads that usually contained no more than one sentence. "It's Always Cooler By the Lake," reads one that can be seen on the sides of CTA buses, referencing the main campus's lakefront location; "Learn to Use Your Ethics As Much As Your Blackberry," implores another posted around campus.

Another can be recited by heart by almost any student activist on campus: "Social Justice Isn't Just for Rock Stars." The implication, of course, is that students should join celebrities in concern with the "least of these," to use a biblical aphorism. Indeed, there is a social justice component in the school's core curriculum, required for every student, and the school has one of the few masters programs in social justice in the country.

Which seems to make it all the more strange to some students that a vital part of the school community, the cafeteria workers, have recently come forward with tales of low wages, prohibitively expensive health insurance, dangerous working conditions, and an atmosphere of intimidation. A recent headline in the school newspaper quoting a cafeteria worker read, "You're talked to as if you're an animal."

In a move that has become increasingly rare in the U.S., a majority of workers have indicated interest in joining a union, according to union supporters and organizers from Unite Here Local 1. And religious leadership at the Catholic school has come out in mass and en masse to support the group.

lucworkers.jpg
At a recent rally at St. Gertrude's Catholic Church in Edgewater, workers received a blessing.

Work at a university cafeteria is never characterized as glamorous--even less so than other types of food service work. Cafeteria workers lack the extra income in tips collected by waiters; the low pay is not supplemented with the hipster cred received by a barista; unlike a bartender, no cafeteria worker has ever been the subject of a country star's soul-stirring ballad or an auto-tune-heavy T-Pain track. The job is not romanticized, and according to workers at Loyola, it's tough.

Like most universities, Loyola subcontracts its food service out to a private corporation. Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company with over a quarter million worldwide and saw revenues topping $12 billion last year, employs the several hundred workers who feed students and provide catering daily. Loyola students living on campus pay close to $4,000 a year for a full meal plan.

Janet Irving, a breakfast and lunch cook who has commuted from Bronzeville to the "Rambler Room" cafeteria at the school's Rogers Park campus for the past 26 years, says she enjoys the work, but doesn't see much of that money.

"I love my job," she states, but "the health insurance right now is too high for me to afford. I have a heart condition, and I can't afford the medical attention I need."

After a quarter of a century at the cafeteria, Irving says her pay is so low that she is ashamed.

"I've been there 26 years and I don't even make 15 dollars [an hour]," she stated. "It's embarrassing to even tell somebody you've been at a job that long and aren't even making money that's up to the standard of the years that you put in."

Aramark management did not respond to requests for comment.

The conditions the workers say they experienced have caused a strong show of support from the school's religious community, who were highly visible at a recent rally at St. Gertrude's Catholic Church in Edgewater where Jesuit scholastics and parish priests asked God to bless the workers' organizing efforts.

"It is indeed a no-brainer that the Jesuits should support this," said James Murphy, a philosophy professor and a Jesuit.

Father Dominic Grassi, priest at St. Gertrude's, recalled a story told to him by one of the union supporters about the hardships he had endured while working at Loyola. The story ended by the worker stating, "'But maybe God made some of us to suffer.' I don't know about you, but that's not my God. That's not our God," Grassi stated. As he gave a blessing over the workers, several began visibly weeping.

The organizing efforts have created a buzz on campus, with many students saying they had no idea cafeteria workers were working under such alleged conditions. Sitting at the information desk at the student union, Dan Herzmann, a senior health systems management and finance major, said he had only been informed of the drive after being approached by a fellow student with a petition supporting the workers.

"I had no idea," he said. "It was shocking. They've been putting up with it for so long without making a stink."

In light of the school's professed concern for social justice, Herzmann stated, "it'd be kind of hypocritical not to give [the workers] what they want."

The specifics of those demands are not yet clear, and likely won't be until the workers win the union and sit down for contract negotiations. Still, workers have spelled out some of their issues with their work.

Outside one of the cafeterias on the Rogers Park campus, an Aramark employee of two years--who asked that his name and position remain anonymous--spoke about working in food service at the university.

"I enjoy working with the students," he said in Spanish, "but Aramark is working us to death.

"I haven't received a raise in two years. I don't have benefits. They're giving us more work while cutting our hours."

He identified himself as a strong union supporter. Walking back into the cafeteria, he paused to turn and say over his shoulder, "Vamos a ganar"--we're going to win.

Another worker, Jesse Kadjo, a first-year graduate student in social justice and community development who has worked in various positions at full- and part-time hours for four years, talked about safety concerns. She recalled an incident at work several years prior where she had cut her finger so badly while chopping vegetables that she required hospitalization.

"For many months prior, some of us had asked when we were going to get cutting gloves," she claimed. "Management kept saying they were being ordered. The very next day, there were cutting gloves."

She attributes her injury in part to the pace at which she is expected to work.

"How can you possibly work as fast as they are asking and still be safe? Something has to give."

Before being approached by organizers--and before nearly severing a digit--Kadjo had wanted to form a union to fight what she characterizes as unfair treatment at work.

"I approached a co-worker about unionizing without realizing he was already talking...union," she remembered.

Whether a union will be able to meet these demands remains to be seen. The union first must win recognition, a process made easier with the company's recent approval of a card check neutrality agreement. After that comes a contract negotiation, an arduous process at any work place. But right now, workers are concentrating on winning the union.

"I just want to get this over with," said Irving, "because I know we're going to win."

Kadjo agreed. "We've needed a union for a long time. We're finally ready to make it happen."

She paused, considering that well-known ad for her university and her employer.

"They're right. Social justice isn't just for rock stars. It's also for cafeteria workers."

~*~

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

 

John Adams / December 5, 2010 10:22 AM

Employees are not forced to work for Loyola or Aramark, or any other employer.

Conversely, there are unemployed people who would take available jobs, especially if unemployment and public assistance is no longer paying them not to work.

Union influence affecting Illinois and Chicago government is bad for the economy.

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