A Year After Contract, Pomona Workers Note Benefits of Unionization

Nearly a year after Pomona College dining hall workers and college administrators ratified a union contract, employees tell of improved working conditions but note that there is still room for improvement. 

The three-year contract, which was ratified Dec. 17, 2013, represented a long-sought end to the unionization campaign that workers launched under the name Workers for Justice in 2010. The first comprehensive collective bargaining agreement to cover Pomona's employees, the contract contains provisions related to workers’ rights and benefits and also allows workers to critique how well management is abiding by the contract.

Lead Cook Edward Mac, who has worked for Pomona since 2012, said that the workplace has improved since dining hall staff voted to unionize April 31, 2013.

One of the new stipulations outlined in the contract is a right to have shop stewards, representatives for workers who feel disrespected or experience a violation of the contract by management. There are five shop stewards, including Mac and Catering Chef Benny Avina, who has worked at Pomona for 27 years and has played a large role in union efforts. 

“I have the right to speak up for one of my coworkers if they’ve been treated unfairly, and last year I didn’t have that right, so now we can talk with the manager and share ideas, and I think that’s a huge step,” Avina said. “Before, they made the rules; now they have to follow our contract language.”

Avina and other workers agree that problems remain, but there are better channels through which to address them. 

Crystal Flores, another shop steward who has been working as a cook at Pomona for three years, receives reports from workers who have felt harassed and disrespected. Flores said that when a lot of workers feel that way and meetings with managers prove ineffective, they have the right to form a delegation. Workers have used this ability three times since the establishment of the contract, challenging, for example, the management’s decision not to provide meals for the workers during spring break 2014.

"It’s kind of like a teapot where there’s been so much that’s building up, and everyone’s so tired of something," Flores said, "and you do [a delegation] in hopes to get a response or a faster response from management.” 

Though disagreements between workers and management still occur, Pomona Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson said that workers' ability to collectively demand changes from management creates a more fair playing ground.

“[The union] is still new; we’ve only had the collective bargaining agreement for about a year, and understanding how roles function is something I think both our dining staff and we as managers are coming to terms with,” Sisson said.

Caroline Bourscheid PZ ’16, president of the Claremont Student-Worker Alliance, said that the number one demand from the workers has always been respect from their managers and from their supervisors.

“Having a way to make management more accountable has really increased the amount of respect [workers] receive,” Bourscheid said.

Sisson said that the long history of Pomona's unionization campaign contained “acrimony and bad feelings” but said that the contract gives everyone a fresh start. She said that both parties “abiding by the same rulebook” seems to help workers give more credibility to the administration.

“I think for the most part, at least in the things that have come to my level, there are differences in points of view, but we have been able to resolve things amicably,” Sisson said.

Sisson added that employees have been working with the administration with a positive spirit.

“I would hope that they would feel that we’ve really tried to comply not just with the letter of the agreement, but with the spirit of the agreement,” Sisson said.

Avina said that he hopes to see continual improvement in the dining halls as a workplace.

“Of course sometimes they make little mistakes or we make little mistakes, but we’re working closer, and it’s our first year," Avina said. "I hope next year we follow our contract better and … bring peace to the workplace."

Update: This article was updated online Oct. 31. The article incorrectly stated that Crystal Flores is a chef; Flores is a cook.