Skoog: I’m hungry for clarity and student voices

While it’s not the University’s strong point, we need more transparency surrounding the Aramark contract.

by Caroline Skoog

Joan Gabel’s formal inauguration last week was punctuated with demonstrations by two workers unions, Teamsters Local 320 and AFSCME Local 3800. The groups indicated that their presence was a result of current contract negotiations with the University disregarding their demands, “citing low wages and inadequate annual raises,” according to a Minnesota Daily article from earlier this month.  They also shared concerns about the necessity of year round work. On Sept. 3, the Teamsters’ website encouraged members to attend Gabel’s inauguration following another disappointing meeting with the University’s negotiation team, declaring, “we have entered a critical period. There is no serious response to our proposals.” 

AFSCME Local 3800 workers also made an appearance at the first Board of Regents meeting on Sept. 13. AFSCME Local 3800 Vice President Stephanie Taylor discussed the group’s frustration with Gabel’s lack of contact. 

As I was reading through the article about the Regents’ meeting, I found it difficult to compartmentalize two tasks on their agenda: negotiations regarding union contracts and the University’s dining contract, which expires June 30, 2020, with Aramark, a Fortune 500 company. 

Aramark’s questionable conduct is no secret, at least not to U of M students. The company’s services at the University have been routinely criticized for lack of healthy menu selections, as well as accommodating those with dietary restrictions. Aramark’s practices at large, however, seem to prioritize feeding profit-hunger rather than the appetites of students and incarcerated persons. Numerous reports have outlined Aramark’s vermin-infested meals, unsafe working conditions and hostile environment at correctional facilities. Cutting corners on meal size and quality has made them one of the biggest benefactors of imprisoned people, and keeping a low-profile enables them to maintain relationships with more distinguished institutions such as the University of Minnesota.

Aramark’s five-section “Negative History” tab on Wikipedia is enough to make their 2015 “World’s Most Ethical Companies” accolade seem like pure satire. 

Since partnering with Aramark in 1998, the University of Minnesota has generated on average $3.1 million in revenue annually. The initial transition from the University’s in-house dining system to Aramark’s services exemplified profit-first reasoning, terminating 354 University Dining Service workers in 2000. UDS turnover rates continued to increase throughout the early to mid 2000s, with 469 terminations in 2007. 

Outside of the University’s vaguely defined ‘partnership’ with Aramark, it’s unclear how Aramark operates within UDS at a base level. But if UDS employees work explicitly for UDS, and UDS is partnered with Aramark, are UDS contracts impacted by Aramark’s terms?

Given that union contract negotiations are pending, and the U is evaluating its contract with Aramark, should these two concerns be looked at in conjunction? Are these topics at all intersecting? All right, cat’s out of the bag: I’m confused. Which could be to Aramark’s advantage. Maybe the less we know about their connection to the UDS contract, and consequently the contract’s labor and union abuses, the more likely they are to quietly return to the University’s dining halls next year. 

There’s all this emphasis on the importance of student voices in creating the campus community; what good is a voice when it can’t access the complete context to the issues it’s speaking on? Time’s running out on Aramark’s contract, and negotiations with Teamsters Local 320 and AFSCME Local 3800 are long overdue. 

It’s time for absolute transparency.