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Aramark launder workers win big through struggle

By staff

La Crosse, WI — On August 3, a packed room of UE Local 1121 members enthusiastically voted to ratify the agreement reached with their employer, Aramark. It was the strongest contract the workers had won, with 40 cents an hour wage increases every year, their first-ever paid sick days, and a stronger safety committee. The vote came after more than three months of struggle by the laundry workers culminating with their first-ever job action, shutting down production as workers walked out on July 31.

Aramark is known in La Crosse for its sweatshop conditions: low wages, unsafe working conditions, a high rate of production resulting in unnecessary injuries, and management that treats its workforce as less than human. Aramark also played its diverse workforce against itself, targeting the Hmong women who make up a significant portion of the workforce for harassment.

From the beginning of the campaign, local leadership knew they needed a united shop to succeed. The first event they organized was a potluck and discussion of demands at the Hmong Community Center in La Crosse, with translation provided for anyone that did not speak English well. From then on, the local leadership made sure their shop floor leadership reflected the diverse membership, and this was the lynchpin holding members together for the fight ahead.

Workers maintained their demands from day one: a significant wage increase, paid sick days, and no more tiers. Management wanted something different: a small wage increase, more expensive health insurance, and a third wage tier. They played the same old tactics, dragging negotiations that should last a few weeks on for months with the hope of denying union members the ability to build momentum. The UE responded that if management would drag negotiations on, that would be fine, but they would not sign any more contract extensions. Management accepted, and so started a two-month period of open shop floor struggle to have the demands met. The members stopped working to march on the boss and deliver a petition, threatened a mass demonstration at a corporate event leading to its cancellation, and organized countless t-shirt days and sticker days.

The culmination of this fight was the July 31 walkout. At 12 p.m., when both shifts were in the facility, 100% of the union workforce stopped working, punched out, and marched out of the building. After a bilingual rally calling on the workers to stand together and do whatever it takes to win, the workers marched around the building, behind a banner saying “Aramark: 21st century sweatshop.” Workers chanted, “Who are we? UE!” and “No contract? No peace!” When the march ended, the workers went back to work with their heads held high, for there was no denying that it was they who controlled the work place now, it was not the boss.

Two days later, when negotiations restarted, management backed off of their demands. They dropped their demand for a third tier, agreed to the wage demand, and even reached a compromise on health insurance. The bargaining committee walked away knowing that they could without hesitation recommend a yes vote. Their struggle had won everything they had demanded and then some.

“The employer gives you nothing,” said negotiating committee member Todd Weis. “Only when you stand united with your brothers and sisters, staying strong, can you get over that mountain.”

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