BERNSTEIN: Cut the ties

The University should discontinue its contract with Aramark due to ethical concerns

The University’s contract with Aramark, the company that supplies our food, is set to expire July 1, and the University is currently in the process of deciding whether or not to continue this partnership. On the surface, there’s no immediate reason not to renew our contract: O-Hill isn’t exactly fine dining, but the food is basically satisfactory, and Aramark boasts some pretty impressive titles, including ranking as one of Fortune magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies in 2013. But beneath the surface, Aramark has plenty of ethical problems, enough that the University should consider ending this relationship.

Since Aramark is a large corporation that serves universities and companies all over the country, many of these objections are not founded in the relationship between Aramark and the University but in Aramark’s activity elsewhere. Aramark can lay claim to a lot of unethical activity — including selling a degraded quality of food to private prisons in order to make more profit — but the activity most relevant to U.Va is Aramark’s treatment of its own workers.

Aramark has received complaints from all over the country about its relationship with its employees. So far, Aramark has had 18 National Labor Relations Board decisions and administrative law judge rulings, not to mention altercations between Aramark and its employees that have not been handled by the NLRB. Offenses highlighted in these decisions include refusing to bargain with unions and withholding union dues, which have significant consequences for workers who are already paid near the minimum wage and receive minimal health benefits. Other issues that have not been dealt with by the NLRB include attempts by Aramark to avoid paying unemployment insurance taxes in Michigan, charges that Aramark pocketed workers’ tips and service charges in Boston, and Aramark’s decision to reallocate much of their pension funding in Louisiana. This is only a fraction of the offenses Aramark has committed.

In addition to its shaky relationships with existing unions, Aramark has also been accused of intimidating workers from creating or joining unions in the first place. In 2012, when Aramark employees at Western Washington University started the process of forming a union, their manager sent out a letter urging them not to do so because, in addition to being — according to him — an unnecessary measure, “a union can also cost you your job” and “employees who go on strike can be permanently replaced.” Intimidation and hostility to unionizing creates a difficult work environment, a kind that we at the University should not be endorsing.

As far as students know, the University has not yet had a negative altercation with Aramark. But a lack of a negative press doesn’t mean Aramark’s employees at the University are necessarily receiving better treatment than Aramark’s employees elsewhere. Furthermore, when hiring private companies, the University should take into account those companies’ activities outside of Charlottesville. By hiring a company or extending its contract there is an implicit suggestion that we either support that company’s activities or value the benefits we receive from them more than we care about that company’s external actions. The benefits we receive from Aramark are not enough to overcome the company’s treatment of its workers, especially since there are other food providers that can fulfill Aramark’s role at the University, like Delaware North Companies, AVI Foodsystems, Guest Services, Inc. and Thompson Hospitality. Though significant research — which of course the University should do — might reveal other issues with those companies, at the outset the treatment of their employees seems better than those of Aramark’s. As an institution, we should strive to associate with companies that share our values, and mistreatment of employees is certainly not an ideal the University espouses.

The University has received several solicitations from other food providers, and if any of these companies has a better track record on workers’ rights, the University should strongly consider hiring one of these food providers instead. Until Aramark makes some significant changes to its practices, partnering with such a company contradicts the goals of the University community.

Dani Bernstein is the Senior Associate Opinion editor The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Tuesdays.

Published February 25, 2014 in Opinion

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