Workers Correspondence: ARAMARK workers in Houston fight for justice

I attended the Cesar Chavez march in Houston on March 29. Leaders of many unions were there continuing the battles fought by that great union leader. About 200 people from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds participated.

ARAMARK workers were some of the most visible. Carlos Aguilar, an organizer for SEIU told me, “We have this national campaign against ARAMARK. Workers are not getting their fair share of the riches this large corporation is making off their backs. In Houston, ARAMARK has huge, lucrative contracts with George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park (Astros’ baseball stadium), Wortham Theater, and the University of Houston. ARAMARK is making millions.

“George R. Brown is a city owned facility,” he said. “Taxpayers are paying for it. The citizens of Houston deserve better. Citizens should demand that only responsible contractors be used on city property. Contractors that pay poverty wages and no benefits are putting Houston down.”

He contrasted the fantastic profits the company is making with the miniscule wages the workers are receiving. Workers are paid $6.30 an hour with no benefits, no sick leave, no vacation time or affordable health care. Aguilar declared, adding, “Workers realize that it’s not just in Houston that they are getting shortchanged but all over the country. Across the country workers have been mobilizing to form their unions to give themselves collective power so they can demand better wages and benefits. Next week on Thursday we are going to kick off a ‘worker tour.’ Houston is the starting point. Workers will pressure ARAMARK for the right to form a union and demand better wages, benefits and respect.”

I also had the privilege to talk with an ARAMARK worker, Carolyn Cox. She and Aguilar informed me that the campaign against ARAMARK is a collaborative effort between SEIU and UNITE HERE. Cox is an SEIU member. She talked about her job. “It’s kind of depressing. I like my job. I like to see people acknowledge the work that we do. ARAMARK doesn’t care about the worker. They just care about the profit. It’s hard - $6.30 an hour compared to all of the money they take in at an event. When you compare your paycheck to the work that you have done, it’s not a reward. It’s a slap in the face.”

Cox works in housekeeping and is assigned to clean 50 bathrooms during events at the gigantic convention center. She sais, “The conditions we work under, they’re deplorable. And even life threatening. We clean the women’s bathrooms and you deal with a lot of stuff. The company doesn’t provide enough gloves or chemicals to do the job. They give us four gloves for 50 bathrooms. Events go on for 4 or 5 hours.” With regard to her health care benefits, she stated, “They provide a health care benefit but it’s too expensive for workers.” She noted that she makes about $1000 a month and the health care benefit for her family would be well over $400 a month.

“When we have grievances against the supervisor we’re not being heard. It’s swept under the covers. Nothing is being done,” she said.

ARAMARK is a multi-national corporation with enterprises in 18 countries including Belgium, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Mexico. Profits reached $11.6 billion in 2006. Company executives were awarded multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses.

On April 19 I attended a program held at the University of Houston titled “The Widening Gap: Economic Inequality at Home and Abroad.” The program was a project of the Houston Peace & Justice Center. One of the workshops I attended featured Michael Espinoza, a former ARAMARK worker who is now the political and community outreach coordinator for SEIU in Texas. He told the heart rending story of ARAMARK workers who work for minimal wages with no benefits or job security. He says ARAMARK has a scheme to keep workers on as part-time employees. When the workers complete their allotted hours (less than 40 hours per week), they then become employees of another labor outsourcing company and keep working. They are part-time employees of the second company as well. This way the companies avoid providing the workers health care benefits. They also avoid overtime pay.

The workers distributed a fact sheet that indicates that the average monthly pay check for ARAMARK workers before taxes is $882. The average monthly expenses for rent and utilities in Houston are $705 which leaves $177 per month before taxes for food, clothing, and other household needs.

ARAMARK reaped one billion dollars from conventions, shows and events at the George R. Brown and Reliant Convention Centers in 2006. The fact sheet poses the question, “Why are ARAMARK workers left without health benefits or a sufficient hourly wage?”

They pointed out that another serious problem with ARAMARK is that the company does not practice safe food distribution. To maximize profits workers are required to re-heat cooked food for many days, until it is used up.

SEIU typically kicks off its campaigns against ARAMARK in Houston since it is the third largest port in the world and is located in the third largest county in the United States. U.S. Workers will tour many cities across the country to tell their stories. Cities on the tour will include Chicago, New Haven, New York City and Houston. A victory in Houston could help advance workers around the world.