Spirited choruses of “Si se puede” — the Spanish translation of Senator Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign slogan — kicked off a union-led protest of Aramark’s presence in New Haven public schools on Friday. But by the end, it was the repetition of “Chicken nuggets, get out” that was drawing the loudest applause.
About 300 people gathered at the First & Summerfield United Methodist Church on Friday afternoon to protest what they called the food-service-management company’s poor food quality, poor treatment of workers and poor financial returns. But an Aramark spokeswoman maintains that the company has good relationships with unions, which she said are “misinforming” the workers.
The Board of Education has been exploring the possibility of replacing Aramark, whose contract the University recently declined to renew, and will begin taking bids from other management companies, the New Haven Register reported on Friday.
Members of the Board of Education could not be reached for comment over the weekend. City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga declined to comment on the matter, saying she did not know enough about it to speak on behalf of the city government. Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo could not be reached for comment.
The protest, which was moved inside because of rain, was organized by UNITE HERE Locals 217 and 34, and 25, the Service Employees International Union, Local 287, and the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a nonprofit that pushes the interests of working-class families in urban zones. Bruce Raynor, the general president of UNITE HERE, who has organized protests against Aramark in cities such as Philadelphia and Detroit, criticized the company’s treatment of its employees at the rally.
“Aramark not only abuses the people it is supposed to serve, it also abuses those who serve in their name,” Raynor said, alleging that Aramark has exhibited similar behavior in other cities.
The company recently left the public-school system in Philadelphia, where it is based, and has faced opposition in cities such as Detroit and New York.
In an interview, Raynor said Aramark has reneged on a promise to the Board of Education that it would make a profit and reinvest in the schools and has instead racked up $1 million in debt.
Custodians in New Haven schools have also expressed concern in the past, saying that Aramark has cut down on the supplies available to them.
But in an interview last week, Aramark spokeswoman Kristine Grow blamed the unions for “misinforming” workers about Aramark in order to increase their membership.
“We have relationships with over 30 unions across the country,” she said. “[They are] good relationships, productive relationships. UNITE HERE and SEIU have been very aggressive in trying to unionize workers.”
Cheryl Barbara, who has served as a chef in New Haven public schools for the past 20 years, was vocal at the rally about the “garbage” that she claims Aramark was having her cook.
“They have mechanized everything,” she said. “It is all pre-packaged. There are no more old-school meals.”
But in the interview, Grow rejected the notion that the company was being attacked for poor quality and service.
“What you’re hearing and what you’re seeing right now in New Haven has absolutely nothing to do with poor service or poor quality on the part of Aramark,” she said.
As the unions continue to press the New Haven Board of Education to terminate Aramark’s contract, Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, who represents New Haven and the surrounding towns, has brought what she calls the mismanagement of the company to the attention of federal agencies. At the rally, one protestor read a prepared statement by DeLauro in which she calls on the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation into Aramark’s corporate conduct, such as the quality of their food and their finances.
“The school cafeteria should always be a special place where young people busy learning can come together and eat a good, healthy meal,” DeLauro wrote in the statement. “But when transparency and truth take a back seat to doubt and fraud, our children suffer. … The reported behavior of some food-service-management companies such as Aramark is unacceptable.”
Yale’s contract with Aramark terminated Jan. 1 after the University announced in June that it would not renew the contract.