Just weeks before students return to the classroom, Queen’s food and hospitality staff at the Donald Gordon Hotel and Conference Centre have voted to approve strike action if necessary, with 96% voting in favour.

According to CUPE 229, the union representing these workers, a “stark” difference in wages between the Queen’s Donald Centre and main campus facilities is at the centre of the dispute. 

A news release from CUPE 229 says the difference is sometimes as much as $6 between the Donald Gordon Centre and other Queen’s locations, and asserts that a gap of that size is unfair and unjustifiable.

“Simple fairness says that Aramark should have the same pay rates and scales for all its food service workers at Queen’s, regardless of where they work,” said Sherri Ferris, president of CUPE 229.

“Aramark is a multibillion-dollar company. Its contracts with Queen’s are worth millions. Aramark can afford fairness.”

The release says a dishwashing position which would earn $21.36 per hour on Queen’s Campus only earns $15.42 at the Donald Gordon Centre.

Ferris said that Aramark has justified the pay gap by saying the work is “different” depending on location, which she and CUPE 229 members find ridiculous.

“A dishwasher is a dishwasher, you wash dishes whether you wash them at Donald Gordon Centre or whether you’re washing them at main campus,” Ferris said.

“What we’re saying is it doesn’t matter where you work, it’s all the same work, just a different building.”

CUPE 229 says it gave a “reasonable timeline” to Aramark to equalize wages, but their refusal has led to this strike mandate.

Ferris said that timeline would essentially see wages become the exact same, or “pretty darn close”, over the course of a newly signed collective agreement.

The release states that there is a “revolving door” of employees at the Donald Gordon Centre, and employee Joe DeSousa said equalizing pay will benefit Aramark by relieving their difficulties recruiting and retaining staff for positions at this location.

“Fairness for workers will create the conditions that let us provide high-quality services for the guests and clients of the Donald Gordon Centre,” he said.

Aramark is a company that was first established in Los Angeles in the 1930s, eventually growing to a corporation that boasts nearly $15 billion in yearly revenue.

The company was awarded a multi-year food services management with Queen’s in May 2020 which began officially in July of the same year.

A spokesperson for Aramark said the company hopes to reach an agreement with union members, but is prepared to deal with striking employees if it comes to that.

“We have had several meetings with union leaders and the bargaining committee in an effort to reach a new agreement,” Aramark said in a statement. 

“The company intends to keep working with the Union toward a settlement that works for everyone. In the event of a work stoppage, we have contingency plans to ensure that services are not interrupted.”

In a statement, Queen’s University absolved themselves of any responsibility in this dispute, saying that as a separate employer all queries should be directed to Aramark.

CUPE 229 however says that Queen’s also has a significant role in ensuring fair pay for workers.

“Queen’s posts a strategy on its website that talks about values and embedding the university in the Kingston community,” reads CUPE 229’s news release.

“If it’s serious about this vision, it should be requiring its contractors to deliver basic fairness and a decent wage to the local residents they employ.”

Ferris says that both Queen’s and Aramark are attempting to pass the buck, and it’s time for Queen’s to step up and do right by their employees.

“Aramark will tell me they’re employer is Queen’s University,” Ferris said.

“Principal Deane there has up on his Queen’s website about Queen’s being international number ten, and they believe in fighting poverty and sustainability, well clean up your own house first. This is in your house, you’re allowing Aramark to get away with this, because if you put your foot down and say ‘you can’t do this’ Aramark would have to bow.”

Negotiations between Aramark and CUPE 229 will resume on August 17 with a conciliator, and 33 members are prepared to strike if a deal is not agreed upon.