Sustainable Food Increases Workload, Workers Say

An event held in honor of the nationally-recognized Food Day on Pomona’s Walker Beach on Monday, Oct. 24, provided a forum for some of Pomona’s dining service employees to express their frustration with staffing issues related to the college’s sustainable food efforts, and to reiterate their support for a “fair process” for a unionization vote. The primary grievance expressed by workers and union organizers at the event was that the administration’s sustainability efforts have significantly increased the workload for dining services without providing the staffing increases required to alleviate the increased workload.

The speakers at the event affirmed their support for Pomona’s efforts to provide fresh, organic food, but they were sharply critical of the administration’s failure to hire more workers to help the current employees handle what they claim is a significantly increased workload.

“I feel proud of the work I do when I start from scratch and do the whole thing myself,” said dining services employee Christian Torres about preparing sustainable food. But he added, “We’re short on people... There’s not enough people to do the work.” Though Torres acknowledged that temporary agency workers had been hired to help with the extra work, he said these measures have not been sufficient.

“To meet the program we’re doing, we don’t have the right number of [full-time] staff,” said Bob Robinson, the Director of Pomona's Office of Facilities and Campus Services. Both Robinson and Dining Services General Manager Glenn Graziano agreed that the use of temporary workers as cooks is undesirable, but they confirmed that full-time workers are being hired to replace them.

“Management does not want to rely on a temporary workforce and we have been actively championing that cause with the powers that be,” Graziano wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Unfortunately those changes have to go through the proper channels to be approved and that takes time.”

Despite the delay, Graziano said more workers would be hired soon.

“I am happy to say that we have been successful in our quest,” he wrote. “We have been approved to hire 19 new employees for the dining halls.”

Robinson and Graziano also denied that sustainable food efforts have increased the workload for dining hall employees. According to Robinson, though specific tasks like preparing organic vegetables or grilling fresh meat may take longer to complete, workers are not being required to work additional hours.

“[Dining hall employees] are asked to do different things within the same time period,” he said, referring to the effects of sustainable food efforts on dining hall operations. He maintained that fluctuations in workload are primarily “demand-driven,” or based on how quickly food is consumed over the course of a meal.

The dining service employees who participated in the Food Day event, however, told a different story. Several workers claimed that their concerns about increased workloads have not been addressed by management or the administration.

“What we really need is a voice and respect,” Torres said through translator Katie Duberg PO '09 in a speech at the event. “Respect—exactly!” an audience member responded enthusiastically in Spanish.

Calls for “a voice,” “respect,” and a “fair process” were common refrains throughout the afternoon as speakers affirmed their support for Pomona College's food employees’ unionization efforts. The campaign for unionization, which is spearheaded by the pro-union group of dining hall workers called the Workers for Justice (WFJ) and supported by union organizers, students, and graduates, began in March 2010. No vote on unionization has been held since then due to disputes over a voting process between the pro-union workers and the Pomona administration.

The event was primarily organized by Jessica Choy SC ’06, an organizer for UNITE HERE! Local 11, which represents hospitality workers in Los Angeles and Orange County. The event was co-sponsored by the student activist group PEAR (Pomona for Enivronmental Activism and Responsibility), the Pitzer Ecology Center, and WFJ. Though representatives from WFJ have said they would support an independent union, they have recently sought support from the local chapter of the international union UNITE HERE! in promoting their cause on campus.

“We just started integrating sustainable food into all of our campaigns,” Choy said. “We’re helping students plan these events around the country to bring together the cafeteria workers and the sustainable food people.”

The event, which featured food cooked by Pomona and Yale University dining hall workers, was centered on a series of short speeches given by WFJ leader Torres, Eric Martinez PO ’13, Yale cook and recently-elected New Haven Alderman Frank Douglass, and Occidental College Professor Bob Gottlieb. Douglass was involved in the unionization of Yale’s food service workers, who are now represented by UNITE HERE! Local 34. Gottlieb is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College and the author or co-author of 12 books, including 2010's Food Justice. The speakers were introduced by Richard Worthington, Pomona Professor of Politics and Coordinator of the Public Policy Analysis (PPA) program.

Douglass, outfitted in his cook’s uniform, spoke about Yale’s sustainable food efforts as well as the successful efforts of its food service workers to organize.

“I know that fighting with rich institutions like Yale and Pomona can sometimes feel like a losing battle, but let me tell you something: it can happen.”

“I would hope that the workers here get the right to organize,” he added in an interview with TSL. “If I have to come back to stand in a picket line, or whatever I have to do, whatever action they have to do, I will come back.”

Worthington, one of the event organizers and a supporter of past WFJ petitions, said that he hoped the event would demonstrate “clear connections [between] food and justice for workers specifically... I thought the speakers did a great job of addressing that from very different experiences that they had."

Worthington estimated that 60 or so community members attended the event. “I’ve been interested in these sorts of issues for a long time, and I don’t think we’ve quite seen [this level of interest] before," he said.

Students and all community members should "try to envision ways of a better outcome all around," Worthington added. “I think that’s what people were articulating today—a better outcome for the environment, a better outcome for consumers of food, a better outcome for workers, and, in the end, a better outcome for Pomona College."