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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Butler food service workers fight for union contract

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Rebecca Bradley and Tanya Gray want you to know that they like their work at Butler University. “We love the students,” Bradley says. “They come and go and then they come back and see us, and they say, ‘Oh, I remember you from 1987!’ Even when you are having a bad day, the kids can make you smile.”

Gray nods. “The kids are what have kept us there. We enjoy our job – how many people can say that?”

The women grew up near each other on the city’s Westside. Both attended Crispus Attucks High School and both are grandmothers now. Bradley is a grill cook at the Atherton Union, the main campus dining hall. Gray preps the salad bar at a residential hall cafeteria. Bradley has been at Butler for 27 years, Gray for 22.

But all is not well in the world of Butler food service. Several years ago, the university contracted the work out to private companies, first Marriott Inc. and now Aramark, a multinational food service and facilities management company. Most of the company’s workers at Butler make little more than $8 per hour. The company does not contribute anything to their employees’ retirement accounts, something both Bradley and Gray say they learned only after they paid into the accounts for several years.

Their decades of seniority seems to carry no weight when management decides what hours to assign. “I’ve never had a weekend off, period,” says Bradley, who works each Sunday. Most workers have no health insurance, and are unable to pay for what they consider a too-high cost for coverage. “It is not that I can afford it,” Gray says. “It is just that I can’t be without it.”

The burden gets much heavier in the summer months, when most of the Butler workers are laid off. “Last summer, I got a letter in the mail that said if I wanted to keep the insurance, I would have to pay about $400 per month. I thought, OK, I have no job, I don’t have income, so how am I supposed to keep my insurance?” Some Butler workers who lose their insurance in the summer have had their checks garnished to collect on health care bills. Both Bradley and Gray have spoken to food service workers at IUPUI and at campuses outside Indianapolis, and discovered their counterparts are getting more predictable hours, affordable health care, and contributions toward retirement.

Those workers have a union contract, and now Bradley, Gray and the Butler workers are pushing for the same status. Earlier this year, a large majority of workers signed cards indicating their decision to join the union Unite Here, which has already organized food service workers at the Indianapolis International Airport as well as IUPUI. “When we found out about a union, baby, we were ready!” Bradley says.

Contract negotiations between the workers and Aramark are ongoing. Butler University director of public relations Courtney Tuell says the school is not an official party to the negotiations, but is closely monitoring the talks. “Butler University values all workers’ rights,” Tuell said. “We are committed to being an employer of choice in Indianapolis, and providing a fair and just workplace for all employees, including contract vendors who provide services to our campus.”

Aramark did not respond to a request for comment.

Bradley and Gray had long known what impact a union could have. Both of their fathers were union members. Gray’s 87-year-old father still attends his union meeting the first Tuesday of each month. As the Butler workers negotiate their first contract, the women have tangible goals for both pay and security. “I want to pay some bills and get that stress off me,” Bradley says.

“I have been working a long time, and I want to get some kind of retirement benefit,” Gray says.

But the buttons they wore on the job as they struggled to form a union had just one word. “Respect.” And both women return to that theme. “We are talked down to (by managers)” Bradley says. “They can be sarcastic.” Gray says her managers are better, but even a well-meaning manager does not have the power to make the real changes a union contract would bring. “Plain and simple, we are looking for a better environment to work in. That does not just benefit us. It benefits the campus as a whole. You want the employees happy in a place where you are asking people to come eat.”

Both Bradley and Gray admit they have been nervous at times about risking their years on the job by pushing for a new contract for all the workers. Gray had to push herself beyond her comfort zone to talk to co-workers about the union. Bradley was scared when she was asked to speak at a rally on campus. “I’m still nervous,” Gray says. “But it is truly time for a change, and I’m not getting any younger.”

They also have been buoyed by support from Butler students and local community members. Thirty students and community members joined Butler workers that were hoping to meet with Aramark management last month. The group tracked down and confronted an Aramark manager. “We would just like you to listen more, and appreciate us more. I’ve been here 17 years, so I just want some justice,” said Butler worker Mattie Cole.

Then Butler student Katie Burns, spoke up. “We are going to stand by the workers, you should know that.”

Bradley says that gestures like Burns’ mean a lot. “I love it. It makes me feel good that the students are standing there with us. We are there for them, after all – we’d just like a better work place.”

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