To be honest, I was never all that excited about the dining halls. I had heard too many college eatery horror stories to believe Dining Services’ descriptions of the “cuisine” and
“atmosphere” at these industrial feeding troughs. But everyone has to buy the massive freshman meal plan for the first eight months on campus, and I wasn’t too jaded to flip through a Dining Services pamphlet during the lonely last couple weeks of summer before I started my first year here in Chicago. One marketing line caught my attention: Dining Services and Aramark claim to try to build community and a sense of belonging, even family, in their cafeterias.
From the start I suspected this was only so much cant. However, it wasn’t until nearly two years later—after I was kicked out of Pierce by an Aramark manager—that the absurdity of their sloganeering really sunk in. I was thrown out for talking with dining hall workers about their jobs; a flustered Dining Services administrator afterward insisted that such discussions “disrupt the sense of community in the dining halls.”
Let’s take a closer look at this jealously guarded dining hall community: Workers arrive before dawn—they’re required to begin preparing breakfast before any manager is on duty. Several employees have such a large pre-breakfast workload that they need to start working before they’re actually allowed to clock in. One worker called this part of the morning routine “working for free.” Once the Aramark managers arrive, workers are under constant, overbearing surveillance. Workers’ complaints about management policies run the gamut from irritating but relatively trivial to dire and possibly illegal. In the former category is the managers’ nitpicking over food preparation that employees have been doing for years. More serious is the report by some workers of systematic hiring practices that develop gender and racial hierarchies, both between workers and managers and among workers themselves, by consistently filling particular job types with set races and genders of people.
To make matters worse, there has long been a consensus in the kitchens that if you stand up to a manager or file a grievance through the union you’ll be targeted with subtle forms of discrimination. Such retaliation is made relatively easy by the labyrinthine Aramark disciplinary regulations: Obscure, selectively enforced rules can be used to remove even the most conscientious dissenters. Further, workers report being passed over for scheduling hours in retaliation from bitter managers—a powerful threat as Aramark increasingly shifts to a
part-time and temporary workforce.
The benefit for Aramark of such a system is obvious. General intimidation backed up by a divisive combination of long-time union workers and underpaid temps allows serious worker-rights abuses to fester unchallenged. For workers this all spells a nerve-racking work environment, chronic understaffing, a backbreaking workload, little job security, and poverty wages.
When second-shift workers leave the dining halls at 9 p.m., some workers take home wages of less than $9 an hour, a full dollar short of conservative Chicago living-wage estimates.
For the last decade or so, even union workers’ yearly wage increases have not
kept up with the rate of inflation, leaving workers facing actual wage cuts rather than raises.
Putting up with this despotism in the dining halls, navigating the laundry list of Aramark disciplinary regulations, and working to exhaustion under an unreasonable workload wins workers and their families the freedom to choose between buying enough groceries and paying the heating bill. So maybe it makes sense that Aramark and Dining Services wouldn’t want students talking with workers about what their jobs are like—but is it really out of concern for community?
Still, the point isn’t to expose Dining Services’ feeble marketing attempts—I mean, when an advertisement starts talking about “building community,” who listens anyways? Last spring, workers in all four dining halls stood up, refused to submit, and demanded justice. Risking their jobs and facing stiff management retaliation, workers connected with U of C student groups and held meetings, speaking events, and rallies; we formulated demands, petitioned Aramark, dropped banners in the dining halls, wore buttons showing solidarity, and marched on campus. The Aramark Worker Student Alliance (AWSA) was born. Since then, collective bargaining between Aramark and the workers’ union has dragged on all summer, with Aramark managers refusing to give workers a fair shake and real power in the workplace. Unfortunately for Aramark, workers are already taking over the dining halls and students are standing with them—please watch for upcoming meetings, rallies, and other actions as dining hall workers continue their fight.
The next time you’re choosing between tofu stir-fry and a chicken quesadilla, ask the workers about the buttons they’re wearing—who knows, in spite of the best efforts by Aramark and
Dining Services, we might just make a community out of these dining halls yet.