Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bitter health pill for Hunter cafeteria union Unite Here

by Albor Ruiz

Early this week, Deborah Johnson, a Hunter College cafeteria worker for the last 10 years, received some unwelcome mail.

"I got a letter advising me that I will have no health coverage at all after Nov. 1," Johnson said. "The old company is not there any more and the new company hasn't picked the health plan up. They want us to pay for it."

Johnson wasn't the only one who got the letter. All 25 Hunter College cafeteria employees, members of Unite Here Local 100, could soon find themselves without health coverage.

The problem began this fall when AVI Foodsystems, an Ohio-based company, took over the food service contract at Hunter College from Sodexo, Inc., Johnson said.

Although none of the workers were fired,Johnson, a member of the workers' negotiating committee, said AVI is refusing to honor the workers' old collective bargaining agreement at the end of the month. That agreement includes a pension plan and free family health benefits.

The fact is, the workers say, that the hard working men and women who make their living at the Hunter College cafeteria - some of whom have been there for decades - are not asking AVI for anything new. They say they just want the new contractor not to take from them what is already theirs.

"There are negotiations scheduled for [today] and the workers are determined to fight to keep what they had," said Ian Mikusko, a union organizer. "Depending on how negotiations go, many students and faculty members are willing to fight along with the workers for a fair contract."

Last month, the cafeteria employees staged a 15-minute union meeting during a Thursday lunch rush to signal their determination. And on Monday, more than 150 students and faculty members rallied along with union members and workers at the college's main campus to protest what they consider is AVI's hard-line stance on health benefits and pensions.

"There is a lot of student support. Students are shocked when they find out what's going on with the cafeteria workers," said Owen Hill, 20, a history major at Hunter who was one of the speakers at the rally. "If the company doesn't budge there will be more rallies and even a boycott of the cafeteria. It's important to protect the workers' rights."

According to Johnson, what the cafeteria workers are paid - an average of $10.15 an hour - is not enough to afford the wage reduction that paying for part of their health coverage means. AVI, she said, also wants to substitute the pension plan with a 401(k) plan.

"And we know how well that has worked for a lot of people," Johnson said with some bitterness. "Besides, we are workers, food service workers, we don't make a lot of money, we cannot contribute to a 401(k), we don't have that kind of money."

What they do have is the support of the college community.

On Sept. 24 the Hunter College Chapter of the Professional Staff Congress - the CUNY system faculty union - passed a unanimous resolution endorsing Monday's rally. Tami Gold, the chapter president, wrote to her colleagues the vote was "in support of the cafeteria workers, who are represented by Unite Here Local 100, in their fight for decent wages, pensions and health benefits."
Richard Martin, AVI Foodsystems' senior vice president of business development, remains positive about today's negotiations.

"We really want to work things out," Martin said. "We are much closer to an agreement that most people think."
Originally appeared on the New York Daily News website dated October 8th, 2009.
The author can be reached at aruiz@nydailynews.com.

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