The other day food service workers at the nation’s oldest Catholic University announced that after a lengthy campaign their union, UNITEHERE, had been recognized by their employer. The whole story has been retold elsewhere – but for those familiar with union organizing, the relative civility of the campaign was notable. In large measure, this was because Georgetown took seriously its obligation to implement Catholic Social Teaching.
Georgetown, like most major universities and many other large institutions, contracts out its food service work. The dining hall workers were not employed directly by Georgetown but by their vendor, the multinational corporation Aramark. While many firms and organizations use contracting to escape social responsibility, Georgetown used its position to model fidelity to Catholic social principles.
Millions of food service workers in restaurants and cafeterias around the nation work for poverty-level wages. (A full-time worker earning the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour will draws an annual salary of only $15,080, well below the $18,530 poverty threshold for a wage-earner with two dependents.) However, since Church teaching forbids paying “wages …insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner,” the university maintains a Just Employment Policy requiring contractors to pay a “living wage” to their employees. Georgetown’s Living Wage required a $14/hr compensation package in FY2008, with annual adjustments tracking the rate of inflation.
This living wage protects all workers serving the Georgetown community, whether or not they belong to a union. But it meant Aramark did not have to fear that in the wake of unionization a competitor paying minimum wages could easily undercut their prices and take away their contract. The food service workers’ union campaign was an economic challenge for management but not a catastrophe to be resisted at any price.
Moreover, Georgetown took temperate but well-timed action to make sure that workers’ rights were respected throughout the process. All too often, companies in Aramark’s situation illegally fire one or more leading union supporters to intimidate their peers. The companies know that the National Labor Relations Board can take months or years to redress such workers’ complaints, and that even then the penalties assessed are rather trivial. To ensure that no one at Aramark was reasoning along those lines, the university addressed a letter to Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer stating:
As you know, Georgetown University's mission as a Catholic and Jesuit institution includes principles and values that support human dignity in work, and respect for workers' rights. We live these principles and values through the development and implementation of business policies and practices that create and support a fair and justworkplace for all members of the university community, including the employees of vendors that deliver services on our campuses. These principles include freedom of association without intimidation, interference or retaliation for all workers. The Just Employment Policy (JEP), which is a condition of the contract between us, explicitly requires vendors to respect and protect employee rights to freedom of association… We appreciate your efforts to ensure that Aramark managers and staff are aware of and abiding by these provisions.
While many companies have lost their fear of enforcement action by the Labor Board, they don’t casually dismiss a missive from a client paying the tab. With the Georgetown administration – not to mention sympathetic students – closely observing the campaign, the potential for gross unfair labor practice violations was considerably reduced. In the event, confronted with evidence of overwhelming union support among the food service workers, Aramark agreed to an expedited ‘card check’ procedure for certification and has entered negotiations for a first contract.
Georgetown is one of many Catholic universities that have recently witnessed organizing efforts by their food service workers. Others have included Chicago’s Dominican and Loyola and Jersey City’s St. Peter’s College.