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    Aramark Workers on Strike

    It’s a wintry day at Madison Avenue and 27th Street. Cars whiz by the towering 40-story neo-Gothic mass of the New York Life Insurance Building. Pedestrians rush to their destinations, eager to escape the biting wind. Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary except for a lonely group of protestors buried under heavy jackets, hats, scarves and gloves. Many look half-awake, holding pickets and signs with the words ‘Aramark on Strike.’

    The strikers have worked for many peaceful decades in the cafeteria at the New York Life building, which houses 2,600 employees from New York Life and several tenants. Everyone gets to use the cafeteria, which since the 1960s, has been run by Aramark Corp., the nation’s largest food provider.

    The employees on strike are also members of Local 100 Unite Here, which has represented them since Aramark started providing food services at New York Life. But starting from Nov. 12, this group of 50, which separates into a morning and evening shift of 25 members at a time, has been walking the picket lines. The workers are demanding a new contract from Aramark with full health-insurance and pension benefits along with a $30-per-week raise, said Cesar Trinidad, a waiter with has been working at New York Life for 25 years.

    Aramark employs 240,000 people worldwide. In the New York area, it runs cafeterias and food stands at Shea Stadium, the United Nations and several Wall Street firms. Nationally, it has contracts with universities, hospitals, the Philadelphia school district and scores of prisons.

    As past contracts drew to a close, Aramark would negotiate a new agreement before an old contract expired, said Matt Furshong, a research analyst at Local 100.’ But a few months before its most recent contract ended on Nov. 30, 2006, Aramark refused to negotiate with union leaders, Furshong said; instead, the company offered a new contract with specific terms. Trinidad, one of a handful of Aramark employees who negotiates along with union leaders, said that this contract offer was drastically different from previous agreements.

    Kristine Grow, a spokeswoman for Aramark, disagreed. ‘We have an attractive deal on the table that includes fully paid health care coverage and a raise.’ She continued, ‘We are very anxious to come to an agreement.’

    The workers, who said they make less than $500 a week on average, say Aramark wanted to cut their pension fund and enforce a new health-care plan requiring a 50 percent co-payment from workers. The company offered them a $10-per-week raise, said Shafiqur Rahman, the lead organizer at Local 100.’ With past contracts, workers were offered a $20-per-week raise with fully insured health-care and pension plans, Rahman continued.

    In 2006, Aramark recorded $11.6 billion in sales. In 2007, a leveraged buyout by Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and three private equity firms turned the company private. Because of the buyout, Aramark’s long-term debt ballooned from $1.76 billion to $6.2 billion. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer profited when his family’s holdings soared in value to almost $1 billion.

    ‘In this precarious economic time, the only safeguard for unskilled workers is collective bargaining,’ said Richard Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education at Hunter College. Traditionally, the food industry has been resistant to organization, Boris said.

    In many cases, ‘people who serve food can hardly buy food for their families,’ he said. ‘It takes tremendous courage for them to organize.”

    Some employees are already feeling the strain. Floridalma Mayen, an immigrant from Guatemala who has worked at Aramark for 18 years, is her family’s sole support. She has two daughters and one grandson to take care of. She has been able to stay afloat, Mayen said, with a weekly strike pay of $200 from Local 100.

    Back on Madison Ave, protestors continue with the strike. They alternate between shouting in English and Spanish to gain attention. Strikers walk in organized circles as they chant ‘Aramark recipe for disaster.’ They have to compete with the sounds of city life: from the blasting roars of a construction site nearby, to the sharp buzzing of cars driving on the street and the cheerful chatter of pedestrians.

    The neighboring community of Park Avenue South has reacted differently to their efforts. ‘It’s very annoying, and we lost a lot of business,’ said Gabriella Lopez, the front desk supervisor at Hotel Giraffe. ‘Not only do clients have to deal with the street noise, but they must suffer through screaming protestors.’

    At another nearby establishment, Procao Churrascaria, ‘We support their cause, and many of the protestors have used our bathroom during the strike’ said Irene Kontonicolaou, a hostess.

    One question that remains in the mind of many is the sustainability of the protestors. Jaan Rannik, who works for Quinn Emanuel, a law firm in the New York Life building, said: ‘At first, I was really gung-ho for them. But the cafeteria downstairs has been opened for at least a month. It doesn’t look like Aramark is going to budge.’

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