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ARAMARK workers in Houston march for justice

By James Thompson

HOUSTON - I attended the Cesar Chavez march in Houston on 3/29/07. Participants in the march were diminished by the fact that it was held on the same day that the senatorial district conventions were held. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee was scheduled to speak but could not attend due to the senatorial district conventions. Nevertheless, SEIU, LCLAA, IBEW, UNITE HERE, CWA and UAW members were present to lend their whole hearted support for this great labor organizer. About 200 people marched and participants were ethnically and culturally diverse and roughly equal numbers of men and women participated.

Speakers repeatedly hit on the theme of the importance of organizing workers to build the strength of the "working class."

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 of their backs. In Houston, ARAMARK has huge, lucrative contracts with George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park (Astro's baseball stadium), Wortham theater, and the University of Houston. ARAMARK is making millions." He noted, "George R. Brown is a city owned facility. 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 said.

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, "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 described her working conditions as, "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 told me that, "The conditions we work under, they're deplorable. It's 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 related to the World.

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

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 U.S. A victory in Houston could help advance workers around the world.

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