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Union zeros in on Aramark
By Jameel Naqvi and Madhu Krishnamurthy | Daily Herald Staff

Aramark employees Chris Walters, left, and Melissa Campa at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville are among the 100,000 food service workers the Service Employees International Union is trying to unionize in a national campaign.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

Service Employees International Union is trying to expand its ranks by recruiting Aramark employees like deli prep server Linda Tomasek at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/5/2008 11:25 AM | Updated: 6/6/2008 1:48 PM

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One of the nation's largest unions is targeting the workers who feed your kids and clean their schools as part of a campaign to expand union membership and improve working conditions.

Service Employees International Union wants to recruit 100,000 new members nationwide -- and 2,000 just in the suburbs.

If the union is successful, it could mean better wages and benefits for hundreds of suburban service workers -- with the cost passed on to you in the form of costlier contracts and higher lunch prices.

The service union's focus is on Philadelphia-based Aramark, a contractor for about 40 Chicago-area school districts that together serve more than 130,000 kids.

Aramark is one of several contractors that provide food services in suburban school districts.

Aramark and its competitors -- including Sodexho, Arbor Management and Compass Group -- together employ an estimated 5,500 food service workers in suburban schools.

The service union has already targeted Arbor and may eventually expand its campaign to other contractors.

"Our focus is on Aramark because it's the largest nationwide and is actively firing and intimidating workers," service union spokeswoman Erica Hade said.

But she added, "We certainly believe that all school service workers should be able to form unions."

Aramark has about 182,000 employees nationwide. Of these, about 40,000 -- or 30 percent of Aramark's hourly workforce -- are unionized.

At least seven districts in the Daily Herald's coverage area contract with Aramark: Butler Elementary District 53, Community Unit District 300, Fox Lake Elementary District 114, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 and Lake Zurich Unit District 95.

Of these, only one, District 204, is unionized.

The service employees union says Aramark pays little, provides few employee benefits, creates an unsafe work environment and doesn't serve food to all the kids who need it.

The service union says most nonunion Aramark workers make near minimum wage, $7.50 to $7.75 an hour, work part-time and don't have health insurance.

In comparison, a unionized janitor in District 204 earns $11.84 an hour and has full employer-paid family health insurance, the union says.

Officials in unionized districts said they've seen little difference in the service they receive since their janitors unionized.

"We haven't noticed any changes to the work or the staff as a result," District 208 Business Manager Christopher Welton said.

Aramark says the union has exaggerated its claims to expand its membership and force workers to accept the service union as their representative.

An Aramark spokeswoman said the company's wages are competitive, and health care is available to employees who work more than 20 hours.

"The vast majority of our employees have access to an Aramark health-care plan," spokeswoman Kristine Grow said.

The most forceful attack on Aramark's record in the suburbs came in a March 2008 report by the service union. The report featured two school districts in the Daily Herald's coverage, districts 95 and 300.

District 95

The report questions Aramark's handling of mold at District 95's new May Whitney Elementary School, also known as the Annex.

August 2007 storms flooded the original May Whitney Elementary School next door, leading to the discovery of toxic mold and asbestos, effectively closing the school.

At an Illinois House committee hearing on Aramark in March, District 95 janitor Gustavo Gomez said he was told to clean the Annex last summer without proper safety equipment.

"Our job was to change the ceiling tiles," he said. "When I arrived at the building, the first thing I noticed was a strong, bad smell. When I removed the tiles, I saw that they were very old, and they were covered in what appeared to be yellow and green mold. Once the tiles were removed, there was dust everywhere."

Gomez said he could only work 15 to 20 minutes before he had to go outside for fresh air.

"I felt dizzy. I was sneezing and I couldn't stop coughing," he said. "All we had were thin rubber gloves, no goggles, no masks."

Grow said janitors were given proper equipment and training.

"Testing was done to ensure that there was no toxic mold in the new building," Grow said. "(Gomez) did not report any of the symptoms or concerns that he describes … to his supervisors at the time of the cleaning."

District 95 Superintendent Brian Knutson said there has never been toxic mold found in the Annex and that the district is continuing to monitor the situation.

Two former janitors in District 95 have filed grievances against Aramark with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming they were fired because of their union activities. The charges are being investigated.

Grow said the workers were fired for reasons she could not divulge.

"I can assure it was not for union involvement," she said.

District 300

Another complaint has been lodged by an Aramark employee in District 300. The Feb. 25 grievance claims Aramark cut the employee's hours and harassed her because she supports the service union.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the charge.

Grow questioned the merits of the Feb. 25 complaint against her employer.

"Aramark feels there is little evidence to support this claim," she said.

The big picture

If the service employees union's recent corporate campaigns are any indication, Aramark should gird itself for the long haul.

The union's campaign to win better compensation and working conditions for janitors has been going on for more than 20 years and has brought large-scale public protests to major U.S. cities.

"It's very typical of SEIU to … put pressure on the employer by … pointing out the various problems with the employer's labor relations or management practices," said Bob Bruno, a labor relations researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Labor experts say the service union's goal is to pressure Aramark to allow workers to join the union -- without interference from Aramark.

The traditional process, in which workers can vote on unionization, allows the employer to campaign against the union.

Because the employer has greater access to employees, labor experts say the union election process is stacked in the employer's favor.

"An employer who really wants to abuse the process and delay the election can coerce employees with only minor consequences," said Martin Malin, a professor of labor law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Hade said the union is pursuing agreements that would allow suburban service workers to unionize without holding an election.

"It's a fair process," Hade said. "They don't face intimidation from anyone."

But Aramark says employees have a right to hear the pros and cons of unionizing and to vote on the issue.

"We want to make sure they have the opportunity to choose for themselves and make sure they have all of the information they need to make this decision," Grow said.

Researchers say unions have a much higher success rate if they bypass a union election.

"By an overwhelming advantage, workers choose a union if (there's) no employer opposition," Bruno said.

But getting Aramark's consent is no small task, experts say.

"Most employers won't agree," said Joe Barker, director of the National Labor Relations Board's Chicago office. "It's an exception rather than a rule when they agree."

Still, the service workers' union has been able to obtain consent from major employers in other metropolitan areas.

Aramark itself has allowed unions to bypass elections in the past -- but Grow said the company is reluctant to enter into an agreement with the service union without the consent of the school districts.

If the union fails to get Aramark's consent, workers will most likely get to vote on unionization.

But even if it's second-best, elections are still a pretty good bet for unions, labor watchers say. "Unions win more elections than they lose," Barker said.