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Cafeteria workers stage UNBC protest

A group of Tim Hortons workers, line cooks and cafeteria workers at UNBC joined with supporters to stage a campus rally Wednesday that ended with an impromptu sit-in in the office of the university president Daniel Weeks.
United union local 40 organizer Harley Augustino leads a ralley for workers in negotiations with the food and catering supplier at UNBC. Citizen photo by Brent Braaten Jan 24 2018

A group of Tim Hortons workers, line cooks and cafeteria workers at UNBC joined with supporters to stage a campus rally Wednesday that ended with an impromptu sit-in in the office of the university president Daniel Weeks.

The workers, unionized members of UNITE HERE Local 40, have been in negotiations with their employer, the food service multi-national Compass Group, for eight months. The union has been pushing for improved benefits, the creation of a modest pension, and a one dollar an hour wage increase. Workers and union staff said Compass, contracted by UNBC to operate food service operations on campus, has been paying staff poverty wages. Negotiations are at a standstill.

"Today we walked out on the fourth round of our negotiations," said Jeannie Gilbert, a cook and union shop stewart.

"When it started out, we wanted better benefits and a wage increase. The first round, they gave us ten cents," Gilbert said.

After four rounds of negotiations, held at the Prince George Ramada, Gilbert said the company met the union proposal for medical benefit improvements, but has only proposed a 20 cent wage increase in the first year of the contract, 45 cents in the second year and 30 cents in the third year. The union has been asking for a $1/hr wage increase in the first year, 80 cents in the second and 80 cents in the third year.

"The negotiations apparently didn't go well, they wouldn't give us what we wanted. They fought with us, so we walked out of the Ramada. We've had enough!" said Lindsay Townsend, a cook at UNBC.

"We don't make a fair wage at all, whatsoever," she said.

"We're here because we want to call on the university, we want to call on the president to step in. We think the university has a responsible when there are poverty wages on this campus," said Harley Augustino, an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 40.

The Citizen reached out to Compass for comment but did not receive a response.

After a brief rally in the atrium of McCaffray Hall, attended by close to 40 workers, students and university staff, the demonstrators walked up the stairs to the office of university president Daniel Weeks and demanded a meeting. They were informed that Weeks was out of town. Augustino then asked to speak to other leaders of the university.

University staff in the office quickly closed themselves into an office away from the waiting room, eventually allowing a small delegation to meet with university provost Dan Ryan, vice president of university advancement Tim Tribe and vice president of finance and business operations Robert Knight.

During the calm discussion that followed, Gilbert began crying as she spoke about the negotiations. She explained that she had played a role in the university's founding in 1990.

"My family, my children and myself fought for this university, to get this university built in this town. We were those people fighting to get it," Gilbert said as the room grew silent.

"I feel that as a part of this university, you should come together with us to do what you can, anything you can to get them to put a decent wage on the table. We're stuck and we really need your help," she said.

Administrators in the room explained that the university was limited in that it did not have the ability to directly interfere in labour negotiations between sub-contractors operating on campus and their employees.

"The university does find itself in a challenging position. There is a union. There is an employee," said Ryan.

"I know you don't want to hear the legal mumbo-jumbo, it sounds pretty insensitive - I really feel bad when I see someone in tears," Knight said.

"Regardless how any of us feel personally about that, we're here to represent the interests of the university and the board of governors and we want to try to see something worked out that's better," he said.

Knight said he would be taking the suggestions about wages into the next round of negotiations with the university's food service contract. Compass has a contract to provide food service until 2019.

The rally took place against the backdrop of a contentious leadership election for the hotel and food service union. UNITE HERE Local 40's 5,500 members in B.C. will vote for a new president of their union at the end of February. The incumbent leader, Robert Demand, has been deemed ineligible to run for the position, according to a letter issued by the union's election committee. There are currently five candidates running for the presidency of the union. The union represents several workplaces in Prince George, including the Coast Inn of the North and the Prince George Ramada.

Leadership figures from Local 40's affiliate in Toronto, UNITE HERE Local 75, have faced criticism from many in the labour movement after ongoing attempts to convince members at downtown hotels to withdraw from their union, and join UNIFOR, a rival union with a membership in the hotel industry. Local 75 had been placed in trusteeship by its parent union, UNITE HERE. UNIFOR sparked controversy earlier this month after withdrawing from the Canadian Labour Congress in a dispute over regulations governing the 'raiding' of other unions.