The relationship between a university student and their food is a tenuous one, full of cravings and crashes as one eats too much or too little of their favorite study-time snack. Whether you enjoy the food that the University of Northern British Columbia provides for you or not, it is fair to say that having the option to drop by the Agora Dining Hall at 10:30 pm on any day of the week is a blessing for someone living on the quintessential student schedule. Imagine the horror as students arrive at the cafeteria doorstep, only to find that it has been closed down due to a strike. Now, for anyone that has not been following the recent, tumultuous news regarding UNBC’s cafeteria workers, the next step might be to drop by the Tim Horton’s that is nestled quietly within the Wintergarden. Unfortunately, this might also be closed due to the strike. How terribly inconvenient. Now, this is only the perspective of the student, who might crave their Tim Horton’s coffee once a week (or day), and could rectify their situation by paying the extra gas money to travel downhill to the nearest grocery store or coffeehouse. Try to imagine how this works for the employees of these institutions.
Workers of both the Agora Dining Hall Cafeteria and the Wintergarden Tim Horton’s are employed by a company named Chartwells (subcontractor of the international company, Compass Group) that has been contracted at UNBC in various forms for quite some time. If you have been following the headlines, you might know that these workers have been negotiating with Chartwells, with the help of the BC union for hospitality and hotel workers, UNITE HERE! Local 40, for fair living wages, benefits, and job security, for over a year and a half. After months of negotiating against persistently low poverty-level wages, job insecurity, and lack of basic benefits for Chartwells employees, workers took a stand and voted to strike on October 5. A 72 hour strike notice was given, though his does not guarantee an actual strike, however, as the union chose to allot another round of negotiations for the morning of Tuesday, October 9. Following thirteen hours of negotiations with Chartwells, the union has stated the company’s last proposal was still not sufficient, lacking job security or wage increases from May 2016 to now. Unless something changes soon, students will find their campus food services behind the picket line.
A media advisory released by the union states that “Cafeteria workers are committed to transforming food service industry jobs at UNBC into stable, living wage jobs” and that “[the issues of poor benefits and low wage] must be resolved in order to avoid a strike.” The current contract Chartwells has with UNBC is up for renewal this year, meaning current workers would likely lose their jobs, and negotiation gains with Chartwells could be lost with a new contractor; the cafeteria workers are looking for a commitment from UNBC to protect their jobs, regardless of the contractor.
Looking beyond the inconvenience of having to get our student meals elsewhere, it is important to be empathetic to the difficulties that these workers have undergone over the last year. A strike might mean that the hard working individuals that have served the students of UNBC (some for many years) might be going hungry themselves. Thus, it is within all of our interests to keep an eye on the strike situation and offer support wherever possible. Look for more information on what you can do as a student or community member on the UNBC Cafeteria Workers United! Facebook page, attend rallies and sit-ins, email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply talk to one of the people serving you your daily double-double.