It is mid-afternoon, and the lunchtime rush is finally over at the cafeteria in Clare Hall on Marian University's northwestside campus. Men and women in royal blue shirts and black pants, tired and hungry after a long shift spent on their feet, cooking and serving meals and cleaning up afterward, walked slowly into a room to the side of the main dining hall.
But as they listen to the organizer from the union UNITE HERE, the energy level in the room seems to ratchet up with each item mentioned. After eight months of difficult contract negotiations—punctuated by worker protests and displays of community and student support—their employer ARAMARK has agreed to terms.
They hear that the company is promising immediate raises and sustained wage increases over the life of the four-year contract. Workers smile in surprise, and look at their colleagues with raised eyebrows. Starting salaries will be higher, health care costs will drop, and the company agreed to match contributions to a 401(k) retirement plan. Heads nod in approval. The contract also includes improved access to year-round employment, a critical issue for on-campus workers. "Yes!" one of the workers exclaims.
Brad Finch, one of the Marian workers who negotiated the contract, stands up. "Remember how it used to be? We only got a few cents of raises and the company just did whatever they wanted to," he says. "This contract gives us seniority so we just can't get stepped over. This contract gives us healthcare we can afford—I know right now I can't afford to go the doctor if I get hurt."
Variations of the same scene were repeated last week several times at Marian and at Butler University, where workers also work for Aramark. The result was that workers at the two schools voted a combined 115-1 in secret ballot elections to approve the new contracts.
These new contracts mean that over 500 service and hospitality workers in the Indianapolis area, including workers at IUPUI and the Indianapolis International Airport, earn higher wages and better benefits thanks to recent union contracts. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is working to earn similar contracts for our city's janitors and security guards.
The workers at Butler, Marian, and beyond insist that their jobs have dignity, and do not have to be characterized by low pay and uncertain tenure. They point out that this week's result is not an anomaly: Unionization of service-sector work has been shown to reliably and significantly increase workers' wages and benefits.
In the early and mid 20th century, the union movement turned once low-paying manufacturing jobs into solid careers that allowed workers to buy homes and send their kids to college. Workers in Indianapolis say they are on the road toward doing the same for service-sector jobs today.
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