“When worker’s rights are under attack, what do we do? Rise up, fight back!”
This chant was repeated by student activists three times outside of Millican Hall to protest the so-called “Aramark takeover” of the Student Union.
The protest, which was organized by the Student Labor Action Project, was attended by 13 people, many of whom were representatives of other on-campus political organizations like the College Democrats and the National Organization for Women.
Each protester was given a sign to hold as they walked from the free speech lawn by the library to the Reflection Pond, where they hung a banner bearing the words “#HoldAramarkAccountable” in red and black letters.
One sign, held by SLAP member Nicole McLaren, had the hashtag as well as the words, “To workers who deserve better.”
Direct actions such as today’s protest are in response to stipulations in Aramark’s contract renewal with UCF, where they will have exclusive control over the Student Union, except for two local businesses, which has many people concerned over what that means for current businesses operating within the building and how workers will be affected. SLAP has been the organization spearheading the campaign against it.
“I believe in free enterprise, not oligopoly,” Cynthia Benson, a political science professor, said of the agreement as protesters handed her campaign literature. “It’s nice to see students give a damn about something.”
Following the distribution of fliers, some protesters went to Vice President Bill Merck’s office on the third floor of Millican Hall to deliver a letter “thanking” him for allowing Aramark to control the Union. Merck is one of many officials overseeing the deal.
“UCF is great when you go behind student’s backs and kick out local businesses,” said one letter that was shared with Knight News.
Knight News has reached out to Merck’s office, but assistants in his office did not have any information as to his reaction to the card nor could they respond to the extent of Merck’s involvement with the Aramark deal.
Part of the anti-monopoly efforts includes a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. That demand happens to tie into an upcoming rally that will be hosted on Wednesday by several progressive student organizations at the Union’s patio.
But what does “holding Aramark accountable” mean?
“It means giving workers living wages,” NOW secretary Hayley Kranz said. The wages being earned now is “not enough for school and it isn’t enough sometimes to eat. There’s only so much financial aid and sometimes that doesn’t cover everything either.”
Among SLAP’s demands to the university in its recent dealings with Aramark is to form a primarily student-run committee that would oversee the implementation of any contractual obligations. The purpose, so said the group’s outreach director Nicole Hamm, would be to “hold Aramark accountable to past and current mistreatment of workers now that they control the Student Union.”
While Aramark would take control over what restaurants will be operating within the Union, the contract proposal would allow two local businesses to sub-let in the building, but still under the control of the corporation. While this helps mitigate some concerns by businesses like Wackadoo’s and Topper’s, which are owned by UCF alumni, it is not enough for people like Josaphat Alvarez, who is NOW’s director of communications.
“When you monopolize, you put corporations over local businesses,” they said. “They aren’t prioritizing living wages over renovating the Union.”
NOW, which represents women as well as transgender and gender neutral students on campus, feel that the Aramark takeover as it pertains to wages is an issue worth addressing. As treasurer Killian Muollo pointed out, women and trans people are typically paid less than cisgender white men. The gap is worse when taking into account race and sexual orientation.
Aramark employs 499 people at UCF, 300 of whom are students, according to a university spokesperson. 117 workers are employed full-time, with the remaining working part-time. The company does not currently have seasonal workers on its payroll.
Currently, the extent of the deal with UCF and Aramark is unknown beyond the proposal documents already available for public viewing. A contract will not be available for public viewing until this summer.