Worker rights the issue at Pomona College
By Mike Andrew
Peaceful liberal arts school Pomona College, in Claremont, California, seems like an unlikely place for a nasty unionization fight involving intimidation, gag orders, firings, and implied threats to deport union activists. And yet it is.
On March 1, 2010, dining hall workers at the school turned in petitions signed by over 90% of their colleagues requesting the freedom to choose to form a union without intimidation or interference from the College. Along with student and alumni allies, they formed an organization called Workers for Justice.
“When we first went public with our request,” Pomona workers say in a statement on their website, “President David Oxtoby pledged publicly that there would be no intimidation of dining hall workers. “Despite that pledge, the Pomona College Board of Trustees and administration have created a climate of fear on campus.”
After he received the workers’ petition, Oxtoby changed his tune, publicly questioning whether a union is necessary, and asserting his right to hold anti-union meetings.
The college’s dining hall management then threatened Christian Torres, a cook with six years of experience, that he would never get a promotion if he kept wearing a union button. The NLRB’s General Counsel has charged dining hall managers with an unfair labor practice in the incident.
Over the summer of 2011 the college instituted a gag rule prohibiting dining hall workers from talking to non-employees while they are in the dining hall, even when they are on break.† This rule effectively bans 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 NLRB also charged the school with a violation because of this policy.
The very next day, November 7, Pomona informed 84 members of its faculty, staff, and students that it had investigated their immigration status and found defects in their documents.
The college administration gave workers – several of whom have been working at Pomona College for decades – a mere three weeks to correct the discrepancies, and fired 17 people when they did not meet the deadline, including 16 dining hall workers.
The Board of Trustees and the administration were not required by law to conduct this investigation, and did so without prompting from any federal agency.
“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,” Pomona workers say in a statement.
“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.”
Pomona alumni answered the call on the weekend of August 18-19 with a new initiative – a video series titled “What Pomona Taught Me.” This collection of video testimonies documents how their experiences at Pomona led them to support the workers’ struggle for justice at their school.
Videos can be viewed on their Facebook page or on the JusticeAtPomona.org website.