At Simmons College, the dining hall may soon start serving a dish unfamiliar to the Fenway-area school: organized labor. Working in secret over the last year, a coalition of students, professors, and union members from UNITE HERE Local 26 have collaborated with cafeteria workers to help organize the employees into an official union.
On Tuesday, February 19, a group of workers and student-union allies formally asked their employer, Fortune 500 foodservice giant Aramark, to let workers exercise their right to organize. The request came in the form of a petition to Andy Allen, the director of dining at Simmons, and asked that Aramark not try to interrupt unionization efforts with "threats and intimidation." Allen's office did not return a request for comment on this story.
On February 27, the group held its first public meeting, organized by Simmons student activist group Fighting Injustice at Simmons Now (FINS) Coalition. In a flag-adorned conference room at Simmons, well over 100 students, faculty, and workers gathered to express their support and chart their plans. After a week of activity, the group had already got 80 percent of the Aramark employees at Simmons to sign on to the union.
Some event attendees noted the adverse working conditions that had to change — the lack of sick days, the insufficient job security, and the inadequate pay. A number of workers had speeches translated from Spanish by friends and coworkers, and used the gathering to express gratitude for all the work that everyone had put into the campaign over the last year.
Many students came forward simply to express support for the hopeful unionists. "We need to tell Simmons College that social justice begins right here," said one student in a speech before discussing plans to collect student signatures on a petition in support of the union, to be delivered to Simmons president Helen Drinan.
A spokesperson for Drinan was unable to comment in support or against the cafeteria workers, saying only that the president had received the students' petition and "is planning to review the situation more carefully before making any statement."
If the Aramark employees are able to win recognition of their union, Simmons will become the second local college in a year to have organized campus employees in this manner. In April of 2012, Northeastern University's foodservice workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize after a month-long campaign, despite opposition from the workers' company, Chartwells. Aside from Northeastern, Harvard is the only other school in the area to have unionized cafeteria workers.
Whether the Simmons workers will face a comparable battle remains to be seen, as the college and Aramark have yet to respond to their workers' demands. If the Simmons unionization process follows the trajectory of Northeastern's, it may still be months before a final decision is reached.
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