“If capitalism is fair, then unionism must be. If men have a right to capitalize their ideas and the resources of their country, then that implies the right of men to capitalize their labor.”
–Frank Lloyd Wright
This Wednesday, at a state university in the heart of deep-red Kentucky, 95 cooks and cashiers earning a bare-bones salary working for a multibillion-dollar company will be voting to form a union to collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions. And unlike Mitch McConnell’s recent surge to re-election, the rich guys actually have a chance of losing this one.
Aramark, a global food service corporation that does business in 22 countries, and made $14 billion in revenue last year, pays most of its cooks and cashiers at Morehead State University (MSU) the federal minimum wage. To contrast a minimum wage earner’s $15,080 annual take-home pay ($7.25 an hour x 40 hours a week x 52 weeks a year) with the compensation of Aramark CEO Eric J. Foss, who made $27.4 million in fiscal year 2014 (combined base salary, bonus, and stock options according to SEC filings), Aramark’s top executive makes 1,817 times more per year than their average worker. Putting that in perspective, this means Eric Foss makes more money in 90 minutes than a full-time minimum wage worker earns in a year.
“I started as a cook at $9 an hour,” said Cody Montgomery, an Aramark worker for a little less than two years who is leading the union drive. “There’s a worker who’s been here for 10 years who makes $8.25 an hour.”
When organizers start the campaign six months ago for workers to unionize with the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO), an affiliate of SEIU 32BJ, the idea of having a contract in which workers could collectively negotiate their own pay had mass appeal. 70 percent of workers signed union authorization cards, when only 30 percent was required to trigger a union vote. During a petition drive to enlist student support, Montgomery said over 400 students and 100 faculty members endorsed the workers’ campaign for union representation in just two days. The MSU faculty senate also voted 37-2 to support the Aramark workers.
“The community is on our side, the workers want it. The only opposition is from Aramark,” Montgomery said.
When the union vote was triggered, Aramark sent Michael R. Murphy, their Vice President of Audit and Controls, to Morehead to campaign against the union. According to “Kyle,” an Aramark worker who refused to give his real name due to fear of retaliation, Aramark has been hard at work disseminating anti-union propaganda to workers.
“I’d love to be more outspoken, but I fear for my livelihood if I do. I know it’s illegal for them to do such a thing, but illegality hasn’t exactly stopped them from exercising certain intimidation tactics,” Kyle said. “If I didn’t need my job so badly, I’d be front and center countering their bullshit.”
The documents, obtained through the anonymous source, claim, among other things, that unions require members to pay dues of $25 to $50 a month. Cody Montgomery countered that the union MSU workers would be joining only requires 3 percent of monthly take-home pay, adjusted for each worker. He added that the company’s claims were mostly lies and half-truths as close as the company could legally get without lying.
“They’re having captive audience sessions, where they spread misinformation and fear among the workers,” Montgomery said. “I went to one and I made [Murphy] very angry, because I was refuting everything he said in front of all the workers… His eyes were bugged out and his face was red, but he couldn’t say anything back because it was the truth.”
The anti-union documents mislead workers to believe that they won’t have any control over union contracts once the union has been voted in. But Montgomery has been busy telling his co-workers that every union has a negotiating team that is elected by the workers, and that no contract is approved without a vote from workers. If the vote on Wednesday is in favor of union representation, the next step would be to meet with union reps and elect the negotiating team. A contract would likely be negotiated 3 or 4 months after the union vote. The support among MSU students is so strong that, according to Montgomery, a coalition of students is ready to take action if Aramark doesn’t play ball with their workers after they join a union.
“We have a number of students who said they will boycott Aramark if they refuse to give us a contract, and take in a brown bag lunch. It wouldn’t be wise for Aramark to not agree to a more sensible contract,” Montgomery said. “I planned on leaving in October, so my first child, who is due in April, could grow up around our family. I could have stepped back, kept my mouth shut and get my paycheck. But if we got our union, I’d want to stay another 3 years to make sure the union is strong.”
In an interview with Shayla Menville of The Morehead News, Aramark corporate spokeswoman Karen Cutler argued that the company isn’t taking a side in the union vote, but just wants employees to be well-informed in time for the vote on January 21.
“We have an ongoing process to establish and implement fair, equitable and competitive compensation programs for our employees,” Cutler said. “In fact, compensation for our employees is very competitive, both for our industry and in the geographies in which we operate.”
In response, Montgomery said he “sadly” agrees with Cutler’s assessment of Aramark wages as “competitive” for the food service industry and the Eastern Kentucky region.
“They’re competitive, but they’re not living wages. You can’t get by on that,” Montgomery said. “Most people around here make minimum wage.”
Even though it’s against federal law for Aramark to retaliate against workers who are organizing and supporting the union drive, Montgomery says he understands when workers are cautious to speak out.
“I don’t trust the company when they say they’re not going to seek revenge on union organizers,” he said. “I’ve been here two years and had one write-up, but if they start writing me up all of a sudden after this, it’s obvious what’s going on.”
“The workers need to understand that this is their chance to get a better life for themselves and their families,” Montgomery continued. “And we have the ability to vote ourselves out of the union. If this doesn’t work out, I would be the first one in line to vote them out.”