Despite management's warnings, Aramark employees at WWU seek to form union

After graduating from culinary school, Michelle Wolters knew that she would be happy making soups and sauces for a living, so when she got the opportunity to do just that at WWU, it seemed like the perfect job.

When she started at Western's Viking Union, Wolters said, she was guaranteed a 40-hour a week job, eight hours a day, meaning she would have the ability to apply for, and afford, benefits.

Last year, Aramark was successful in earning a 10-year contract with WWU, providing dining services to all of the university's dining halls, catering, and retail cafes and markets across campus. Their contract began September 1, 2011.

Like her new employer, Wolters said she is also new to working at WWU.

"I was excited about it," Wolters said. "I still am, because I love my job."

What she doesn't love is that Aramark is seemingly trying to intimidate employees from forming a union, after cutting their hours.

Shortly after applying for medical benefits, Wolters said her hours were cut to 30 per week–full time by Aramark's standards, but not enough for her to be able to afford her benefits, she said. The explanation she was given: it was slow.

"Thirty hours a week, I can't survive," Wolters said. "I'm now looking for a second job. That means I'm going to be working seven days a week, just to make ends meet."

It's issues like these, as well as stressful conditions regarding the time clock and breaks, and no set pay raise or evaluation schedule, that make Wolters, and other Aramark employees, want a contract, and they want Union help to get one.

A few months ago, Wolters said, a fellow Aramark employee approached the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local chapter about starting that process.

Earlier this month, Aramark Resident District Manager Stephen Wadsworth weighed in on the situation, sending a letter to all Aramark employees urging them to "think carefully before becoming involved."

"Deciding whether to join a union is a very serious issue, [emphasis kept]" Wadsworth wrote in the letter that was delivered to employees. "And I hope everyone will think carefully before becoming involved."

In the letter (see below), Wadsworth said he was writing the letter to the employees so that they would know their rights, and know that they do not have commit, or stay committed to, a Union, and that a Union may not be in their best interests as an employee.

"You and I working together can continue to make our operation at Western Washington University a better place to work," Wadsworth wrote. "I believe that after you have given this matter the kind of thorough consideration it requires you will see that you do not need a union and will exercise your right [sic] not sign the Authorization Card."

But one paragraph in particular has employees, like Wolters, worried.

"A union can also cost you your job. As non-union employees, you do not have to worry about the possibility of a strike. At Union Companies, strikes are common place. Employees who are on strike receive no paycheck and are not allowed to collect unemployment compensation. Worse than that, employees who go on strike can be permanently replaced."

"I felt it was intimidating," Wolters said. "It pretty much stated 'If you join a union you will be fired,' without actually saying it. That's the message I got. "

Wolters said that, while Aramark has held focus groups to gather concerns from their employees, she doesn't feel the company is really listening, and a Union will help them have a say in the decisions that affect them most as employees.

"We really feel as if the only way we are going to be able to better our working conditions is to have a voice in these decisions and the only way to do that is to have a union and to have it in writing what's going to happen as far as our jobs are concerned," Wolters said.

In a letter delivered to WWU President Bruce Shepard, Western's faculty union, United Faculty of Western Washington, stated they also felt the tone of Wadsworth's letter was not in-line with Western's values and gave a misinformed view of unions.

"The letter from Aramark offers a deeply flawed view of the value and integrity of unions," the letter, signed by UFWW members said. "Moreover, the letter foes well beyond giving offense and trespasses on the right of employees to make fair and informed decisions in an environment free from fear and coercion."

Reached by email, an Aramark communications representative, Megan Haney, said Aramark does indeed respect the employees' right to make the decision on their own.

"While we do not believe that third party representation best serves the interests of our employees, the students, or our client, ARAMARK recognizes the right of its employees to choose to be represented or to not be represented by a labor organization."

Despite not having heard anything else regarding forming a union from Wadsworth or Aramark, Wolters said she thinks just by beginning the union-forming process, things have changed for the better for Aramark employees.

Before, employees were told that in order to continue earning health benefits throughout the summer, when many of them may be unemployed due to lack of business, they would need to file through COBRA, an expense that many of them may not have been able to afford, Wolters said.

Shortly after that, when employees had made that one of their focuses to work toward fixing with the help of the Union, Aramark approached the employees and said that was a misunderstanding and that they would remain covered.

"I'm looking at it and it's like, we don't even have the Union in place yet and it's already benefitting us," Wolters said.

Wolters said the Union hasn't officially been formed yet, but is gaining a lot of support. The next step is to petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret ballot to see how the Aramark employees really feel.

Having never been a part of something like this before, Wolters said she's not sure how long the process will take. But to her, it's time well spent.

"The way I look at it is, even if it takes six months, it's worth it," she said. "I think what we're doing is paving a road for future employees so they wont come across situations like this."