Recent Unionization Efforts Succeed at U.S. Colleges

While organizers at Pomona College continue to work to achieve unionization for dining hall workers, workers at colleges across the country have already joined UNITE HERE, the union Pomona workers aim to join. But organizers at Georgetown University, Northeastern University, and the University of La Verne had different experiences in achieving unionization with UNITE HERE.

At Georgetown, workers went public with their demands for unionization in Feb. 2011, Northeastern in March of last year, and La Verne this October. Workers at La Verne just voted to unionize March 7; Northeastern workers voted to do so in April 2012, and Georgetown workers achieved unionization in March 2011 by a card check, after more than 80 percent of workers signed authorization “cards” stating they wished to form a union.

Similar concerns at all three schools motivated the push for unionization.

“Workers at Northeastern were facing all kinds of mistreatment and disrespect,” said Claire Lewis ’14, a member of Northeastern’s Progressive Student Alliance, which helped organize the unionization campaign. She mentioned low wages, verbal harassment, and sexual harassment and abuse as examples.

“Most of the workforce was kept part-time, and some managers would pressure women workers to trade sex for more hours,” she wrote in an e-mail to TSL.

At Georgetown, workers “felt like they deserved a voice on the job and in the community ... as well as respect and dignity,” said Samuel Geaney-Moore ’12, a member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee that helped organize for unionization.

The Georgetown Voice reported that workers referred to low pay and disrespectful treatment by managers. Workers alleged that managers fired or threatened to fire employees arbitrarily, encouraged division between black and Hispanic workers, and unexpectedly made full-time employees part-time employees.

“One of the big things was respect,”  said Prince Jones, a worker at La Verne. He said that employees were often overworked, and one of the goals of unionization was “getting more assistance in the kitchen instead of having one person doing three or four or five things per person.”

A main difference between Pomona and the other schools is that Georgetown, La Verne, and Northeastern hire outside dining services, while Pomona manages its own dining. Northeastern contracts with Chartwells, Georgetown with Aramark, and La Verne with Café Bon Appétit, the same service Claremont McKenna College and Pitzer College use.

Because the administrations at Northeastern, Georgetown, and La Verne are not directly involved in managing the dining halls, they declined to comment on the unionization process on their campuses. A representative from Café Bon Appétit said she was not authorized to speak on this issue.

Lewis believes dining managed by an outside company instead of the school administration presents a challenge to organizers.

“They’re fighting a multinational corporation,” she said. “It makes it a lot harder for the workers.”

Christian Torres, a former chef at Pomona, commented on the fact that workers have successfully unionized at La Verne, where dining is managed by a corporation, but not at Pomona, where no such corporation is present.

“It’s kind of confusing,” he said. “We’re like, what’s going on in here? If a big corporation decided to let the workers decide for themselves and let the workers have the union, what’s happening in here?”

According to Jones, workers at La Verne were able to win a union relatively quickly because of support from students, faculty, and staff.

“Bon Appétit pretty much couldn't do much anything because we had several angles of people who had our back,” he said. He added that the workers’ strong relationship with students—Bon Appétit’s clients—gave them leverage with the company.

He added that he thinks the role played by Pomona’s Board of Trustees has affected the unionization campaign here.

“They’re fighting against the Board of Trustees, which is a pretty big, powerful entity,” he said. “They’re the money holders of the entire school, and they’re pretty powerful characters ... They have more power, per se, than Bon Appétit did in this particular situation.”

Organizers at all of the campaigns said intimidation was a concern for the unionization movements, although the level of intimidation varied at the schools.

At Northeastern, Lewis said “workers [were] forced to attend captive audience meetings,” and “worker leaders were pulled into meetings with one or more of their supervisors,” where they would be discouraged from promoting unionization.

To try to prevent intimidation, she said, organizers requested neutrality from Aramark, which would have meant the company could not communicate information to workers on the topic of unionization.

Neutrality is a key goal for Pomona's Workers for Justice, which wants the administration to agree, along with the dining hall managers and the Board of Trustees, not to say, publish, or otherwise distribute information about unions and the unionization process for an extended period of time before workers vote. Pomona has offered to grant neutrality for 24 to 48 hours before an election but has maintained that full-neutrality would violate the college’s principles of free speech, making it impossible to respond to potential misinformation about unionization.

Organizers at Northeastern failed to achieve neutrality, Lewis said.

“The company was just refusing, and it seemed to make more sense to keep building student support and worker strength,” she said.

Bon Appétit did grant neutrality at La Verne. Jones said he thought the situation at Pomona actually helped the La Verne organizers achieve neutrality on their own campus.

“Fortunately for us,” Jones said, “due to all of the other things that were going on at Pomona College—they’ve had a fight going on there for a quite a few [sic] already—and some of the things that were going on there caused Pomona quite a bit of damage, so a lot of the big companies and the surrounding schools didn’t want to deal with the same stuff.”

However, Jones said the company did not always act neutral, despite the neutrality agreement.

“They started putting up all these crazy anti-union posters when they agreed to be neutral in front of a whole bunch of people,” he said, although the posters were taken down. He also said the company pitted some workers against each other.

“They pick out some of the ones that have the most sensitive situations, they bribe them, they do this, they do that,” he said. “That stuff was really hard to fight, because ultimately people’s jobs are on the lines. It’s not that easy with the economy out there.”

At Georgetown, Geaney-Moore said intimidation was initially a concern but never became a large problem.

An important factor behind this, he said, was intervention on the part of Georgetown’s administration, which sent a letter to Aramark explaining Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy.

The letter read, “As you know, Georgetown University’s mission as a Catholic and Jesuit institution includes principles and values that support human dignity and respect for workers’ rights. These principles include freedom of association without intimidation, interference, or retaliation for all workers.”

The letter went on to cite the policy, which requires outside vendors to respect employees’ right to organize.

“Aramark took that seriously,” Geaney-Moore said.

“Overall, I would say the administration realized the whole campus was in support of this and decided to make it an important moment in Georgetown history,” he said. “Georgetown showed that the college can do the right thing, and it works. I think it’s very unfortunate that Pomona hasn’t done the right thing yet.”

Jones said working conditions have improved since unionization, and workers now have the respect of their managers. “[The company] realized, we have to respect these people at the level that they're supposed to be respected.”

Geaney-Moore and Lewis said workers at their schools have been satisfied with the results of their contracts.

Lewis said the contract with Northeastern, ratified in December, included a pay raise, expanded health care coverage, and a sexual harassment and assault policy.

“Talking to the workers when I go into the dining halls, work is completely different for them,” she said. She explained that now, managers greet workers with a “hello” when they see them and ask them how they are doing.

In March 2012, workers at Georgetown ratified a three-year contract that includes a 50-cent-per-year pay raise, a 40-hour work week, year-round health insurance, and a $200 signing bonus, according to an article in The Hoya.

“It was a contract that everyone was really happy with,” he said. “You can just walk into the cafeteria and see how much happier and freer people feel.”

Jenna Perelman contributed reporting for this article.