Dressed in red amid the blues and grays of Wall Street, union leaders pounded drums and shouted over loudspeakers yesterday to add a voice of dissent among the limos and police protection that lined Front Street in the financial district during Goldman Sachs’ annual shareholders meeting. The Service Employees International Union organized the event to ask Sachs to pressure food service provider Aramark, in which the bank holds a 20% stake. As the rally went on outside the meeting, representatives from the union addressed shareholders to demand improved labor conditions at the food services giant. Current and former employees claim that Aramark provides unfair wages and fires workers who attempt to organize for better pay and benefits.
“I was trying to organize my co-workers so that we could get the things we need” said Antonio Gomez, a former worker at Houston’s Convention Center, where Aramark provides cleaning services. Gomez said he organized partly to remedy a lack of health care coverage and was subsequently fired by the company.
“When people would get sick or injured, [Aramark] would basically say ‘That’s your problem,’ and ‘If you can’t come to work, don’t bother coming back at all’” he said.
A press representative from Aramark declined to comment on these specific allegations, citing company policy on privacy, but disputed the union’s claims more generally, saying that the company provides competitive wages and benefits. The company also said it has a 50-year relationship with unions nationwide, including SEIU.
“As a services business we rely on the quality of services provided by our employees, for that reason we make an effort to provide competitive wages” said Christine Grow, a press representative for Aramark. “A vast majority of our employees have access to health care benefits.”
The workers came to the Goldman Sachs meeting after a nationwide fact-finding tour of sites run by Aramark and say that they want to put a human face on the decisions Sachs makes as a primary stakeholder in Aramark. The union said many of these problems began when Aramark went private. Their list of concerns extends from the company shortchanging school districts in Detroit on bulk-order food to 33 major health-code violations at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, CA.
SEIU defended its research methods in the face of claims by Aramark that the union inflated figures to support recruitment demands.
“Our reports come directly from workers, in what workers have experienced” said Erin Smith from SEIU. “Everything we use in our fact sheets and documents is public information. The majority of our facts come from media reports, and public reports to [Aramark’s] shareholders before they went private.”
Two workers and a union organizer were given the chance to address the Goldman Sachs meeting, and pointed to the high salaries of Goldman Sachs’ co-presidents in their call for change, describing a stark wealth disparity that increasingly defines American society.
“I’m asking Goldman Sachs executives if they could live on $6.30 an hour” said Vernita Murdock, a worker from Houston. “Because I’m pretty sure I could figure out a way to live on $67.5 million a year.”