By Carin Holmes
Dining workers at KU are continuing their effort to unionize, despite the issues they have faced along the way. The workers, employed by Aramark, began their campaign for unionization because there were issues they had that they felt were not being addressed.
“People were fed up with how they were being treated, lots of issues were not being dealt with,” said Sean Jones, a Cub Cafe employee. These unaddressed issues included medical insurance issues, a lack of adequate pay and workers being disrespected.
“For what we do, the pay is low, very low,” said Teri Isamoyer, who also works at the Cub Cafe and affectionately calls herself, “the Sandwich Lady.” Some members of the staff are only making $12 an hour. One employee has worked there for 33 years and is making just $15 an hour, according to Isamoyer.
The workers described being understaffed. As more workers are leaving due to poor working conditions, this leaves the remaining workers with more work to do with no additional pay.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) schools East Stroudsburg University and Clarion University, who also use Aramark’s services, have seen their dining workers unionize recently through a voluntary recognition process. Ben Bennett, the Organizing Director at the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United, worked with the employees at these schools and is now working with the employees at KU.
The KU workers are running into roadblocks in their effort to unionize, which Bennett believes can be attributed to two KU administrators who he feels got in the way of the workers voluntarily recognizing themselves as a union, instead promoting the option of a confidential vote. He believes this was done without authorization from President Hawkinson.
KU has repeatedly expressed that they are neutral in this matter. On Feb. 28, in an email to KU students, faculty and staff said, “The university and its administration take no position on the current attempt to organize Aramark employees. Any statement or claim to the contrary is inaccurate and unauthorized. Aramark is an independent contractor and, through its employees, provides a valuable service to the university.”
However, emails obtained by the dining workers through a Right to Know request show that Desiree Reasoner, KU’s Executive Director of Housing, Residential Life and Dining and Warren Hilton, KU’s Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, communicated regarding what they should tell Aramark Kutztown General Manager Christopher Wallace about their opinion on the matter.
In the emails from Oct. 29, Reasoner told Hilton that “Aramark will yield to what KU wants.” Hours later, Reasoner emailed Wallace, telling him that she spoke to Hilton and that he was favorable to the confidential vote.
“I want to be clear that I fully support the university’s statement on this issue — we take no position on the current attempt to organize Aramark employees,” said Reasoner in response to a request for comment. “The emails you mention are part of a private conversation, and are taken out of context, and do not reflect the position of our administration. As KU’s executive director of Residence Life, Housing and Dining Services, I respect all of our Dining Services staff and thoroughly enjoy working with them as they strive to serve our students each and every day.”
Hilton shared a similar sentiment to Reasoner, claiming that the emails were part of a private conversation that was taken out of context and that they do not reflect the personal discussion that was had nor do they represent President Hawkinson and KU. He added, “President Hawkinson, who has been a strong union supporter throughout his career, made the university’s position of neutrality quite clear over this academic year. Any statement or claim to the contrary is inaccurate and unauthorized. Aramark is an independent contractor and, through its employees, provides a valuable service to the University.”
Isamoyer and Jones also described a meeting dining workers had in which they met with Wallace, where they claimed Wallace used the time to spread false information such as equating signing a union card with signing for a car, describing incorrect amounts for union dues and saying that pro-union employees would “prey” on other employees to convince them to join. They also claimed that when union supporters tried to counter Wallace’s claims, he “snatched” the pro-union materials they were handing out from their hands.
In addition to what happened at the meeting, Bennett said that Wallace may have violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act when Wallace called into his office and “interrogated” an employee who was overheard discussing issues they were facing at work and telling them they could not discuss their working conditions. Bennett said they have filed a charge with the Federal Relations Board.
Christopher Wallace did not respond to a request for comment.
Isamoyer said that she hopes unionization will help the Cub Cafe attract and retain more employees, as it is difficult to serve the volume of students they serve with half of the staff they need.
Jones hoped for fair treatment and a better line of communication with upper management, as he felt that many in upper management do not know how to communicate with the employees, which he found “despicable.”