Photo credit Claremont Courier
It’s been over six months since seventeen food service workers at Pomona lost their jobs for not providing documentation saying they were legally able to work in the United States. It’s been over two years, however, that food service workers at Pomona first collected petitions signed by 90% of their coworkers requesting the freedom to choose whether to form a union without intimidation or interference from the College. The problem here is that Pomona is not a corporation, it’s an institution of higher learning where such disrespect towards members of the campus community does not fall in line with a liberal college’s values of respect and openmindedness. Nevertheless, our universities are behaving like corporations especially towards the most disempowered members of our campus community: service workers. Corporate behavior towards the lowest paid workers on our campuses might be acceptable to the administrators who we trust to run our universities but it is not acceptable to the rest of the community, including faith leaders, faculty, and students.
When Pomona food service workers first went public with their request to President Oxtoby to have the choice to form a union free of intimidation, Oxtoby publicly pledged that there would be no intimidation in the dining halls. Despite that pledge, a fearful climate was created for all workers at Pomona by a threat from dining hall management, a ban on student communication with workers in the dining halls, and ultimately an investigation leading to the firing of immigrant workers who keep Pomona’s dining halls running. Less than two weeks after workers presented President Oxtoby with their petition for a fair process to decide to unionize, President Oxtoby publicly questioned the need for unionization. Next, the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel alleged that a Pomona College dining hall manager told Christian Torres, a cook at Pomona for 6 years, to remove his button if he wanted to be considered for a promotion. Pomona’s intimidation of food service workers was in full swing, but so was workers’ dedication to fight back.
The student body is the most significant ally campus workers can have especially in the midst of a campaign to fight for basic rights on the job. Alliances between students and workers that began as friendships at Pomona eventually became important partners in the fight for a union in the dining hall, and it didn’t take much time before the administration took notice. Over the summer of 2011, the college instituted a gag rule prohibiting dining hall workers from talking to non-employees while they were in the dining hall, even while they were on break. This rule effectively banned workers from talking to students in the dining halls. During the week of November 6, the community responded to the gag rule by sending more than one thousand emails to President Oxtoby and members of the Pomona College administration. The National Labor Board’s General Counsel charged the college administration with allegedly violating federal labor law by implementing this policy during a unionization drive. In the face of this complaint, Pomona changed the policy.
Then, Pomona took a new page from the corporate handbook and used it in the midst of the organizing of some of the most dedicated immigrant workers at one of the most liberal campuses in the U.S. Last November, the Board of Trustees of Pomona and the Pomona administration announced they had done an investigation into workers’ documents authorizing them to work in the U.S. and found deficiencies in the documents of 84 individuals on campus. At no point were the Trustees nor the administration required by law to conduct this investigation, but did so anyway without prompting from any federal agency. The college administration gave workers, students, and faculty — several of whom have been working at the college for decades — a mere three weeks to correct the discrepancies, and fired seventeen people when they did not meet the deadline, including 16 dining hall workers.
To this day, the workers at Pomona maintain their original request to have an intimidation-free environment in which to choose whether to have a union:
A democratic vote on the union is not possible as long as President Oxtoby, his administration, and our managers are free to intervene in our decision and our vote. This is our choice. Just as faculty assert their right to academic freedom, we assert our right to debate and decide this question free of pressure from our employer. We call for neutrality from the administration, board of trustees and our managers, not from the College as a whole. In fact, we invite and welcome the College community, including faculty, students, staff, alumni and all members of the community except those who have direct power over our livelihoods — the administration, board of trustees, and our managers — to participate in the discussion about unionization.
Corporate behavior has never been known for its sympathy towards its lowest paid workers, rather it’s known for its merciless efforts to squeeze every penny and work hour possible from its most powerless employees. So when our universities increasingly act like corporate bosses when workers at our universities decide to stand up for themselves and say enough is enough, we fight back — and the fight at Pomona has gone national. Students and labor allies from Boston to Seattle will be doing delegations to the trustees of Pomona College in the cities they reside. The fight at Pomona is a fight for all workers and immigrants across the map, so that’s where we’ll take it.