5/9/08

SEIU organizers protest for card-check

Dozens picket Aramark

Aramark employees in Houston put down their mops, brooms and spoons Thursday to protest what they describe as low wages, unaffordable heath insurance and off-the-clock work assignments. About 60 housekeepers, food preparation workers and others who work at Aramark-managed venues marched in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center as part of a nationwide effort by the Service Employees International Union to organize the company's workers.

SEIU is seeking a nationwide card check neutrality agreement, which typically allows a union to organize workers at specific sites without company input and without a secret ballot election. But negotiations have been "going horribly," said Dan Schlademan, property services director for SEIU in Chicago who was on hand in Houston for the protest.

Such agreements make it easier for unions to win representation while companies can avoid the fallout from a nasty corporate campaign.

Aramark and SEIU had a previous deal, but Schlademan said it expired in August.

SEIU spokesman Kevin O'Donnell blamed Aramark's private equity buyout last year, which caused it take on debt. As a result, he said, the company is balancing its books "on the backs of workers."

Aramark spokeswoman Kristine Grow said the debt level isn't unusual and isn't causing the company undue stress.

Elena Chavez works in the pantry at the George R. Brown and said she wants health insurance and more respect on the job.

Chavez, who was dressed in her white chef jacket and black chef trousers, said she and her co-workers can't afford to buy Aramark's health insurance.

Conditions are rough too, said Chavez, who has worked for Aramark for seven years. She said she starts working at 5 a.m. but often doesn't get a lunch break until after 2 p.m.

Grow said Aramark has policies on breaks and encourages employees to bring complaints to their managers, human resources department or to the company's toll-free hotline.

Employees who work at least 20 hours a week can buy health insurance, she said. Some of the options cost as little as $11 a week.

Housekeepers Navarita Sparks and Edward Summons said they're forced to work off the clock as Aramark employees at Reliant Park.

Sparks, who earns $6.50 an hour, said he typically works 52 hours a week but is only paid for 40. He said he's complained to his bosses but was told he could leave "if you don't like it."

Summons, who also earns $6.50 hourly, said he typically works 40 hours a week but is only paid for 35 to 37 hours.

"We're not aware of any issues like what you describe, and they would be completely against our policy and training for our managers," according to Grow. "We'd encourage any employees with these complaints to contact us directly so that we can investigate the situation."

SEIU said the employees will return to their regular jobs today.

(chron.com)

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