Aramark protests lead to change — and they’re only the beginning
Aramark is a company that is surrounded by controversy and protests. While nothing of this nature has happened at UD, other universities that use Aramark have launched recent protests on the dining service provider. One of the student-led groups is the Justice for AU Workers Coalition, located at American University in the District of Columbia.
Children of Aramark employees can now receive full scholarships to American University thanks to the efforts of Carlos Vera, the founder of the Justice for AU Workers Coalition — and the organization still is fighting for more.
A graduate of American University, Vera earned his degree in political science in spring 2016 and founded Pay Our Interns, a national campaign advocating for more paid internships for millennials. He created the Justice for AU Workers Coalition during his time as an undergraduate.
“I’ve been fighting for workers’ rights for a couple years, and I realized it wasn’t enough for one club to do it,” Vera said. “Institutions are built in ways where they have buffers. They can resist 20 students protesting about something.”
Vera moved past this problem by reaching out to different clubs, student government and faculty at his campus, where he created a coalition of 13 clubs and 50 faculty members.
“There’s power in numbers,” Vera said. “That’s how you know you’re winning, when you have people that aren’t really into this [cause], but care about it, that’s when the university starts listening.”
Last spring, the coalition managed to negotiate the creation of a full-ride scholarship for children of Aramark workers. In addition, workers at American University are now holding their union accountable, talking about issues they have and being more involved in their own rights, Vera said.
“It’s empowering them, and getting to a point where they feel comfortable fighting for themselves,” Vera said. “They have a voice, it’s just being ignored.”
Overall, Vera said the coalition’s efforts have been very successful. He thinks the model created at American University could be used at other campuses across the country.
“I think long-term you could make this into a model and spread it across the country, because I think the model that we have here has worked,” Vera said.
Vera attributes the coalition’s success to their large network of supporters as well as their social media efforts.
“There’s power in social media and storytelling,” Vera said. “I think the problem with a lot of labor advocates in most universities is they just say ‘You should care about this because workers are being overworked.’ My question to them is ‘What workers?’ Put a face on the problem.”
Vera, having already won some victories of the cause, said the success of the coalition and others like it depends on how activists plan to fight.
“People need to be more strategic; nowadays, it’s all about business,” Vera said. “Reach out to the media. Build coalitions. Ten people might not have power, but 100 will.”
However, the protests aren’t just for workers’ rights, and they aren’t just at universities. On Sept. 27, Aramark was at the center of a protest by supporters of The Humane League, an animal rights organization. Thirty-five people protested outside of Aramark headquarters in Philadelphia last month as part of the “Agony at Aramark” campaign, aimed to change Aramark’s slaughter and animal handling methods.
Taylor Ford, The Humane League’s corporate campaigns manager, said this campaign is currently the only one being run by the organization. However, students on many different college campuses, such as American University, have orchestrated their own protests of Aramark and its policies.
“We’ve launched strategic online efforts, including an online petition that has reached over 85,000 signatures, and multiple Facebook ads informing university students of our initiative,” Ford said in an email message. “On the ground, we’ve brought our campaign to dozens of campuses.”
Ford said the protest is likely to be successful in the near future.
“We hope to see this issue addressed as soon as possible, and we are confident that we are in a good position to win this campaign in the near future,” Ford said.
Karen Cutler, the vice president of corporate communications at Aramark, claimed that despite efforts to work with the Humane League, the organization refuses to partner collaboratively with Aramark.
“The Humane League has repeatedly attacked Aramark because we work with other NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and not them,” Cutler said in an email message. “That is the sole reason for their campaigns. Unfortunately, they are more interested in sensationalism than solutions.”
She also said the Ethisphere Institute recognized Aramark as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies.” According to Cutler, the protests at American University are not due to mistreatment of employees, but may be connected to negotiations with the labor union.
“This is a tactic often used to try to influence the negotiation process,” Cutler said. “The union will engage students to support them in an effort to generate more public and media attention for their demands.”
Cutler said they respect their employees and do not negotiate through the media or third parties.
“I can assure you, as an employer of 270,000 employees around the world, we have good working relationships with the many different unions which represent our employees,” she said.