Pomona College Dining Hall Workers File to Unionize
By Tim Reynolds – The Claremont Port Side
Published April 4, 2013
Pomona College dining hall workers filed for a union representation election with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, workers, students, and activists announced this development and delivered a petition to President Oxtoby’s office in Alexander Hall, calling for the administration to cooperate with the election.
“We’re here to ask that the College remain neutral and that the College give us a fair and speedy election without any blockages,” said cook Edward Mac at a rally held at 6th and College after the group exited Alexander. Workers and organizers have been pushing for a union election since March 2010, and they hope that the NLRB election will take place before this semester ends.
“I’m organizing this union because I want to feel someone’s on our side, because I just don’t feel that here right now,” said Frary cook Crystal Flores. Flores started working at Pomona in December 2011, just after the College fired 17 employees (16 of them dining hall workers) for documentation discrepancies. Flores said she feels intimidated at work, and she wants to be treated with dignity and respect. “We are human beings, not just cooks, dishwashers, or housekeepers. We were born with a voice and we have a right to be heard.”
The College has indicated that it intends to cooperate with the NLRB and its election procedures. “The holding of elections is now in the hands of the NLRB, and we certainly hope that the process will move quickly to resolution,” wrote President David Oxtoby in an email to the Port Side.
Will the College remain neutral?
Workers for Justice and UNITE HERE Local 11, the union that would represent Pomona dining hall workers, have pushed for full neutrality from the College since they began unionization efforts. Pomona’s administration objects to full neutrality because it would prohibit management from discussing unionization, even to address factual errors, for an indefinite period prior to an election.
“Throughout the process we have emphasized the importance of allowing everyone to speak freely on the question of unionization,” Oxtoby wrote. “The College reserves the right to respond to questions from workers about unionization, to correct any misinformation that may be distributed, and to hold meetings as appropriate.”
College leadership has consistently refused to adopt a neutrality agreement, yet WFJ and UNITE HERE decided to file for a union election anyway. “We feel strong enough to win it regardless of whether or not there’s neutrality, and we want to see resolution now,” said Robin Rodriguez, a UNITE HERE organizing director. “We’re fed up with waiting around for the university to have a meeting or sit down or speak to us about a peaceful resolution, we’re just ready to resolve it.”
As part of neutrality agreements, employers sometimes agree to an election by card check, in which a union is organized when a majority of employees sign a form or “card” requesting union representation. The College opposes the card check and instead favors a secret ballot election, on the grounds that a secret ballot’s anonymity enables free choice and prevents intimidation.
Like with the issue of full neutrality, organizers and administrators could not reach an agreement on a voting method. Yet because the NLRB only administers secret ballot elections (though it recognizes unions formed through other arrangements), Pomona workers will decide on unionization through an anonymous vote rather than a card check.
Despite this setback, workers and organizers remain optimistic about their chances. “If Pomona is asking for a secret ballot, we’re going to do a secret ballot because we’re confident we’re going to win,” said Frary cook Rolando Araiza, who has worked at Pomona for seven years and has been significantly involved in unionization efforts.
The process that may occur in the coming weeks – an NLRB-administered secret ballot election with no established neutrality agreement – is practically identical to the College’s previous proposals. “What is happening now could have happened three years ago,” Oxtoby wrote, “since our position on secret ballot elections and freedom to speak has been consistent throughout the process.”
What about intimidation?
Organizers worry about workplace intimidation in the absence of a neutrality agreement, yet administrators insist such intimidation has not and will not occur.
“We have already said that we would not hire ‘union busters’ nor hold one-on-one meetings with workers on the subject of unionization,” Oxtoby wrote, referencing two tactics typically used by employers to intimidate employees in the process of unionizing.
Yet some workers seem more concerned about intimidation coming from dining hall management, rather than Oxtoby or other College leaders.
“Maybe President Oxtoby is staying neutral, but inside the kitchen, there’s a whole other story,” said Flores, who claimed she’s constantly being watched by management staff. “I couldn’t even talk to anybody. If I do talk to somebody, they come in and they start looking like they’re pretending to do something next to my food.”
Araiza also has felt intimidated by dining hall management. “I feel like they have personally attacked me because of me speaking out about what’s going on at work, and that’s wrong,” he said.
Yet Pomona’s administration contests these claims. “There has not been and will not be any intimidation of workers by managers,” wrote Director of News and Information Cynthia Peters in an email to the Port Side. Peters emphasized that management staff will be sensitive to employee concerns and wrote, “They [dining hall managers] are receiving information on ways in which the NLRB process affects what is and is not allowed at this stage.”
Despite these assurances, WFJ and UNITE HERE are prepared to overcome intimidation should it occur. “If the College tries to do anything that will intimidate us or will delay the date or just change the atmosphere, the workers are going to answer back to that,” Araiza said.
Jeremie Robins PO ’15 spoke at Wednesday’s rally and said that students would support the workers as well. “We delivered the signatures of over 800 Pomona students in favor of a fair and neutral process to the administration,” he said. “If we hear of any delay or intimidation tactics happening, we will take action to support the workers who feed us everyday.”
On March 26, UNITE HERE sent a letter to President Oxtoby requesting a meeting to discuss full neutrality from the College. Yet because workers have already filed for an election with the NLRB, it seems unlikely such a meeting will occur.
“We are now embarked on an NLRB process and intend to fully respect that process,” wrote Peters. “There is no reason for the College to meet with the leadership of UNITE HERE at this point.”
Since the workers have already petitioned for an election, now the NLRB’s Region 21 office will investigate the petition to ensure they have jurisdiction and the union is qualified. The office will then determine the details of the election (from time and place to voter eligibility), first attempting to negotiate an agreement between the union and Pomona before resorting to an NLRB hearing. Once the election details have been determined, Regional Director Olivia Garcia can then order the election take place.
Unionization elections are decided by a simple majority of votes cast, though an election can be delayed or its results protested based on misconduct by either party. (For more information on the NLRB process, click here.)
“After seeing three years of struggle, we’re ready,” said Rodriguez. “We’re demanding that the College don’t delay. We’d like to see it by the end of the semester. We want resolution now, one way or another.”
Regardless of how the election turns out, many of Pomona’s dining hall workers seem committed to improving workplace conditions. As Mac put it, “No matter what happens, I will never stop organizing for respect at work.”
All photos by Tim Reynolds of the Claremont Port Side.