When I started school at GW I liberally spent my meal points at J Street, rarely thinking about what it is like to work for Aramark (contracted by GW). At the time, I remember thinking that the workers were abrasive, bitter, disgruntled and sometimes downright mean. I did my best to avoid any confrontation and went merrily along to my classes and internship on the Hill. While it might be easy to fall into this trap, thank goodness so many new and old students are not like the person I was when I first arrived at GW.
As a member of the Progressive Student Union, I have joined others in going to hundreds of dorm rooms asking students to sign a petition demanding that Aramark address worker issues like widespread pay discrepancies, lack of payment into the healthcare plan and safety violations. The petition also urges Aramark to uphold basic worker and human rights as they re-enter contract negotiations on Sept. 12 with Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 25 (union). The thing that amazed me most by knocking on doors was how receptive and concerned the GW student body was when they heard the way our workers are being treated. Nearly every student asked agreed to sign the petition, and many more wanted to get involved in the campaign.
Last year the Progressive Student Union surveyed J Street workers and recorded their grievances. These workers courageously addressed the most important problems and concerns they had about working for Aramark. At the time, (workers said) Aramark was thousands of dollars (approximately $38,000) behind in getting workers their owed benefit pay, a number that has been confirmed by the local union. Workers reported being verbally harassed and intimidated by management. They contended that the health care plan is insufficient to cover their basic needs. On multiple occasions workers have been turned away from dental practitioners because Aramark has not paid into their dental plan at all in over a year. Another worker said that management has told workers to lie about the content of food, specifically telling workers to call food vegetarian when it has a chicken broth base. In addition, the Pan Asian Station was replaced by a Malaysian Restaurant, which is being worked by non-union employees. In learning about all these violations Aramark was committing, I realized how thoughtless my original opinions about J Street workers were.
Aramark management will be meeting with workers this month and they will be presented with fair and basic demands. Some of those demands are asking for a one-hour meal break after a nine-hour or longer shift and that the use of foul language by management staff should be immediate grounds for discipline. Other demands concern fundamental rights for J Street workers when they are sick, getting paid on time for their work and offering some time off when workers lose members of their immediate family.
Students can have a critical impact on these negotiations. Aramark needs to know that GW students care about J Street workers and workers need to know that that GW students support them. By signing the PSU petition, offering verbal support to J Street workers and by contacting Aramark Manager Jim Gillespie or Regional Manager Terry Merritte to ask them to listen to the workers demands, students can have a tremendous impact in supporting the J Street workers efforts to negotiate for benefits they deserve. As principle consumers of food products at J Street, students should have a legitimate say in how Aramark treats its workers.
Certainly, after hearing about the concerns mentioned above and countless others spoken by the workers themselves, I really began to think about the implications my meal points and lifestyle had on the lives of J Street workers. Far from angry or disgruntled, GW is very fortunate to have such a talented team of caring, concerned, and dedicated workers. Their work deserves compensation, it deserves dignity and it deserves respect. It is simply not enough to say thank you after picking up lunch, being a part of the George Washington University community is ensuring fairness for everyone inside it.
-The writer is a graduate student in the School of Political Management.