Human Rights Violations at AU

Service Workers Missing Millions in Pensions at AU

Is AU Violating the Human Rights of Cooks and Cleaners on Campus?

A recent Washington article Post offered a number of reasons for the large gap between people of color and whites when it comes to retirement. (See

AU contributes to this gap in retirement savings every year. By eliminating pensions for cooks and cleaners during the 80s and 90s, AU has done far more than its share to contribute to this pension gap.

AU privatized cooking and cleaning services over thirty years ago, and has looked the other way when the companies it hired did not fund the retirement accounts of campus cooks and cleaners in a substantial way. Vendors such as Marriott made no contributions to pension funds at all in the 90s; now Aramark makes a meager contribution of $1.00 per hour worked.

A typical worker who only works the academic calendar of 36 weeks a year of 40 hours a week will work 1440 hours, and gain a pension contribution of $1440 for the entire year. (See a Marriott contract of the 90s online at 1990-1993 Marriott Contract and search for pension in it. The phrase “pension” is missing because Marriott and AU felt the cooks and cleaners did not need pensions. The current Aramark contract with its meager pension contribution is here.

Essentially, these contracts have taken our lowest paid campus workers, pushed them off the retirement savings lifeboat, while other campus workers—faculty and staff—get the best retirement savings contributions in the city.

What is the consequence to the individual cook or cleaner?

One colleague who works in the Terrace Dining Room would like to retire but she can’t afford to. After 34 years of work here, she has only $11,000 in her retirement account. And since her wages here have been so low, her social security check will only be $900 a month.

Why is the balance in her account so low? As mentioned earlier, Marriott the food vendor on campus in the 90s, made NO contributions to worker retirement accounts for years. As a result, during the first half of her career here, the University, through its vendor, contributed ZERO to our colleague’s account. And help is not on the way.

Today Aramark’s current contributions are meager. A typical cook at AU will work 1440 hours over the 36 week academic calendar each year.  Aramark will add a dollar for each hour worked or $1,440 to the cook’s retirement account. Even with compounding, this will not provide for an adequate retirement.

If the cook worked for the University and paid in 5% each month, and received the matching 10% contribution all staff receive, he or she would accrue $3,273 a year in retirement benefits based on an annual salary of $21,820 ($15 an hour times 1440 hours).

Accruing either what Aramark gives now of $1,440 or what they would have received as University employees of $3,273 a year would make a huge difference compounded over time.

And the issue of $21,820 as an adequate annual salary is another issue.

The University and its partner Aramark will deprive the next generation of cooks and cleaners of access to adequate retirement savings, that is, a pension in line with their income while working, just as they have done to the older workers who are here today.

But don’t take our word for it. Please get involved. Ask a campus cook, cleaner, server, or cashier, how much is in their retirement account and how many hours a day, and months a year, and how many years they have worked here.

How did this happen?

As you probably know, the early 80s were an especially ugly time for labor in the United States. Ronald Reagan’s successful lockout of air traffic controllers led to copycat anti-labor actions across the country. And the senior managers at AU followed right along.

In 1983 the University privatized the work of cooks and cleaners and then avoided any responsibility for their retirements, or their tuition remission for their children, or educational benefits for them. Since then, a variety of vendors such as the current incumbent, Aramark, have funded retirement accounts at such a low level that only $11,000 accumulated the retirement account for a cook after 34 years of fulltime work on campus.

What exactly are the cooks and cleaners missing?

In addition to not getting the kinds of retirement contributions that university staff members making the same wages get, the workers are also denied educational benefits. These excellent benefits are given to all other staff and fulltime faculty.

See where you see will that what the cooks and cleaners are missing is very generous. Free undergraduate and graduate education for their children on campus. Free tuition for their children at hundreds of other campuses across the country through tuition exchange

These workers are also missing free classes for themselves. The University has said in the past “if they care about educational benefits, they just need to bargain for it during contract negotiations.” See past issues of the Eagle cited at the end of this note for the University’s history with cooks and cleaners.

In contract negotiations, the University would require that workers making $20,000 a year put tuition benefits ahead of food and rent. Is there really a reason why they cannot be given the same educational benefits the University gives to white collar workers?

As well as being critical to the economic viability of our campus workers, recognizing that cooking and cleaning matter and that the work of cooks and cleaners deserves as much recognition as the work of white collar staff on campus is an important message for our students.

There are things we can do to influence the University to change its disrespect for the retirement and the education of cooks and cleaners and their children.

Start by getting involved. Put your opinion about the treatment of cooks and cleaners in your Facebook account so that more people will see how AU operates. Local and national publicity about these issues may influence the University.

Another strategy might be to ask the press for attention to this issue.  At the Washington Post, writes about retirement. Also at the Post, writes about the lives of low-income food service workers.

And please share this email with your students so that they will learn more about how the University has continued to treat cooks and cleaners. Please ask them to think about why this denial of adequate retirements, wages, and educational benefits is not a violation of the human rights of the blue collar workers on campus.

Please let us know if you would like to join an effort to lobby the City Council to investigate labor conditions at AU and other private universities in DC. The financial decisions of non-profits are attracting attention. In New York an investigation by the Attorney General forced major changes at Cooper Union.

Some background information: To see how the University has ignored workers and students who want change in these policies over the last thirty three years, See


To see the start of the University’s 32 year campaign of indifference see an article from the Eagle in 1983: and search on Housekeeper’s Union


Jim McCabe

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