W hen student and permanent employees returned to work this September, the composition and design of the McGill Food Services had changed drastically at Bishop Mountain Hall, the primary cafeteria for the 800-plus students in Upper Rez. Shifts were in disarray: some days we were overworked to the point of near catastrophe, others we had to play “musical coffee cups” to fill the time until we punched out. The shift confusion has since been worked out, but the structure of the McGill-run food services has been fundamentally altered.
I entered McGill and lived in Upper Rez in the 2007-08 school year, and while the meal plan wasn’t exactly fit for a king, I was comforted by the story of how this particular system came into being. Until this year, the Upper Rez plan was based on a rationing system that divided meals into portions of main courses and desserts. The former plan was the result of a student-led initiative in an effort to keep food costs low and affordable for students.
Last year, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson told The Daily, after being asked about the University’s ongoing plans to centralize food services on campus, that “We are 100 per cent committed to having ongoing consultation with students.” By reorganizing residence food services over the summer, the administration has completely trampled on the notion of student consultation.
In what seems to be part of a larger effort by the University to move toward a general privatization of most of campus life, McGill has scrapped the old plan for the sake of a for-profit plan that is drastically anti-environment, anti-student, and I believe will become anti-worker in the coming years.
The workers at BMH probably have the best wages of any service-level workers on campus. Numerous co-workers of mine support their families on the shifts they work at the cafeteria.
Workers at the BMH and RVC cafeterias are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 800. SEIU is one of the strongest unions in North America, and safeguards the high quality of life that workers at BMH currently enjoy. Permanent workers have full health care through McGill, and earn time-and-a-half on weekends. “Casual” workers, such as students, earn the same wage as the permanent workers. This makes BMH one of the best student jobs on campus: you don’t need a work visa, you don’t need to speak French, and you can more or less choose your hours.
Most of the credit for this belongs to a few BMH administrators who consistently bend over backward to facilitate student employment. But since this year’s reorganization of food services, new administrators have been brought on that most employees believe have mandates to reduce the number of shifts and to increase sales in the newly profit-driven system.
Fears are increasing among workers that in 2012, when the current union contract expires, the University will move toward a fully privatized system and outsource the residence food system to a private company like Chartwells. Anyone familiar with the overpriced and thoroughly disgusting pizzas in the Redpath basement knows just what to expect from Chartwells.
In recent years, the company has attempted to expand its operations on campus. Its blatantly anti-union policies are also a cause for concern, particularly among those who rely so heavily on these jobs for their livelihoods. The troubling trend toward the corporatization of McGill Food Services also flies in the face of ongoing efforts at increasing sustainability and gives the administration’s pledges of participation a hollow ring.
Whereas in the old system, virtually all beverages, such as coffee, soda, water, and milk were dispensed from fountains into reusable mugs and glasses, students now opt for cans of soda and bottles of water, creating bag after bag of waste each shift. As dishwashers, my co-workers and I fill three to four bags’ worth of waste more than we did under the previous system. By week’s end, the trash room in the cafeteria’s basement is overflowing. Much of the food, such as breakfast cereals and sandwiches, is now sold in individually packaged containers.
The motivation for this shift is blatantly capitalistic: people impulsively purchase when things are neatly packaged and individually wrapped, rather than more communally-oriented cereal and soda dispensers. Students are paying, out of a declining balance, as much as $14 for dinners. Rez students could be eating better food at Plateau restaurants for cheaper than at BMH. For those that stock the fridges, serve the food, clean up the waste, and throw out the trash, it’s quite obvious that the administration is laying the structural foundations to roll in an entirely privatized system.
A food system we want and need is one that respects student budgets, continued sustainability efforts, and a unionized workforce, not the needlessly wasteful new system, masked under a clean corporate Martlet logo.