When hundreds of marchers blast Aretha Franklin's "Respect" across Independence Mall; close down the westbound lane of Market Street; clog the sidewalk outside the Aramark skyscraper; and fill the air with hours of chants and invective-filled speeches delivered from a flatbed truck, it's safe to assume they have a message to send.
And that message? "Aramark? They suck. They fucking suck," according to Eddie Velasco, a Citizens Bank Park cashier of the multinational food-service behemoth. He was one of hundreds of current and former Aramark employees from New York, New Jersey and Philly who flooded Center City last Tuesday. In short, the school district terminated a two-year-old contract with the company in September, after Aramark ran an $11 million deficit. (Aramark disputes this.) The rally's union organizers now want the company to pay that money back, saying that the company bungled the management at several district cafeterias and fed students food that was highly fried and loaded with carbs.
"We won't take the garbage you're feeding us any more," said Danny Jones, a student at Masterman High School, from the flatbed.
Others just wanted better working conditions. Lorrie Levitsky, who works as a Citizens Bank Park bartender, said she was wrongly accused of stealing money from her till. "All I want," she said, "is some respect from this company."
Eventually, an organizer carried a tray of fried chicken fingers, french fries and soda to the company's front door, along with an "invoice" from the district totaling millions of dollars. This sent the crowd crazy, with people climbing atop the SEPTA bus shelter at 12th and Market to photograph the antics.
Aramark is under fire in other cities, too. In New York, hundreds of corporate-cafeteria workers are striking. Zarko Kricak, 50, works at such a place. He stood in the middle of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, wearing a beat-up blue hooded sweatshirt. He came here from Yugoslavia 14 years ago. Each morning, he said, he makes about 250 omelettes, cleans up and then prepares 40 gallons worth of soup for lunch.
"All this, for little pay, with almost no time off, and with almost no raises as the years drag on," he said. "That's why I'm here in Philadelphia. Because it's the same here as it is in New York."
Some rally-goers hoped an Aramark executive would descend the tower to address the crowd. The closest they got was a glimpse of some middle-aged men in suits, looking down from a balcony about 100 feet above. The protesters caught sight of them and waved their "Aramark: Recipe for disaster" signs.
This kept the crowd going for another hour, until the suits left and a young Latino man took his spot. The crowd heckled him, too, but that soon changed to an approving roar when he ran out of view and came back with a marker-scribbled sign: "I am union: SEIU 32BJ!"