Pomona Dining Hall Workers Organize Against 'Managerial Disrespect'

 Pitzer Professor José Calderón speaks to the crowd in front of Frank Dining Hall after a march protesting Pomona's treatment of its dining hall workers on April 25. (Adela Pfaff • The Student Life)

Calls of “¡Sí se puede!” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” resounded through Pomona College’s Alexander Hall on April 25, when approximately 100 dining hall workers, their union representatives, and student supporters gathered at Pomona President David Oxtoby’s office to voice concerns about the treatment of dining hall staff by Pomona’s administration.

It was the most recent of three delegations organized by dining hall workers over the past two weeks. Their calls for respect on April 20 and 25 sparked student support for workers’ rights and inspired dialogue across the consortium about working conditions in Pomona’s dining halls.

Dining hall staff and representatives from their union, Unite Here, organized the April 20 delegation after almost 70 percent of dining hall workers signed a petition demanding respect from the administration over the course of one day.

Unite Here representative Daisy Monterroso said the petition was circulated after she learned a manager had intimidated a member of dining hall staff. This was the most recent of many examples of managerial disrespect, Monterroso said.

The petitioners cited violations of their contract, uncovered shifts, and fear of retaliation if they voice complaints as problems with the administration.

“I know it’s hard for the administration to believe in us, to believe in the people who wash dishes, who sweep and mop the floors,” one worker said. “We feel in many ways that they hate us because that’s the message that they give us.”

Oxtoby thanked workers for sharing their concerns but did not respond otherwise. In an interview with TSL, he said the union has not officially conveyed these complaints.

Tascha Shahriari-Parsa PO ’18, a student involved with Claremont Student Worker Alliance, said he was “pleased that Oxtoby allowed the workers to speak.” 

But “eventually, the administration didn’t respond in an active way,” Shahriari-Parsa said. “Even though they listened, we didn’t see the changes we needed, and instead 11 workers were written up.”

Four days after the April 20 delegation, 11 of the workers who participated received disciplinary actions. Monterroso said their contract calls for successive offenses to be met with disciplinary actions of increasing severity, beginning with coaching and counseling. Instead, participants in the April 20 delegation received final warnings, the penultimate action before dismissal, she said.

“Obviously, the workers are scared,” Monterroso said.

Shahriari-Parsa called the disciplinary actions the “most embarrassing thing that Pomona has done” since the college fired 17 undocumented workers in 2012. He said writing up the dining hall workers conveys the message, “If you organize, we’re going to punish you.”

Delegations are not unprecedented at Pomona. Dining hall workers organized in October 2013 to protest “unfair” reprimands given to members of Workers for Justice, a group of pro-union dining hall workers involved in the negotiation process that followed the vote to unionize in May 2013.

Dining hall workers consider the recent disciplinary actions retaliation on the part of their managers and Pomona’s administration.

“I feel the management is retaliating against me and my co-workers because we took part in a protected concerted activity,” wrote an anonymous worker in an email to TSL.

Monterroso said the 11 workers were written up for taking an unauthorized break, despite the fact that all workers used their 30-minute lunch break to participate in the 3 p.m. delegation.

Although Patricia Weaver, general manager of dining services, issued the disciplinary actions, Monterroso said that after the April 25 delegation “it was very apparent that the president and the treasurer are in agreement with management and what they are doing.”

Regarding the disciplinary actions, Oxtoby said that administration is “following the union contract.”

Dining hall staff have been protesting breaches of their contract for some time, including consistent violations of seniority, cross-classification, and overtime pay, which all result in overwork, Monterroso said. Dining hall workers and their Unite Here representatives have not been satisfied by their interactions with dining services management.

“We’ve had to walk out of meetings because they’re being extremely disrespectful to us,” Monterroso said.

Another anonymous dining hall worker said that Pomona “reads between the lines [of the contract] to get what they want."

“We’re tired of being invisible,” he added. "We’re tired of being disrespected.”

The worker received a disciplinary action after voicing concerns at a smaller delegation on April 19 because a manager felt he had “verbally assaulted” her. In response, Unite Here filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with Pomona. Monterroso said it was “extremely illegal” to target the worker because he represents the union as a shop steward.

Monterroso thinks that management has been particularly “aggressive” with dining hall staff because alumni weekend is coming up on the weekend of April 29.

“They want to make sure everything goes well [during alumni weekend] so that when alumni come and give money they have the impression that everything is fine here," she said.

Pomona refused to disclose how much temporary servers hired for alumni weekend would be paid. In response, Unite Here filed another Unfair Labor Practice with Pomona, which “is supporting the right of the unionized workers to receive information that affects their job, pay, and labor rights,” Claremont Student Worker Alliance member Charlotte Hughes PZ ’18 wrote in an email to TSL.

Oxtoby said Pomona will work with the union to resolve the ULPs.

“We’ve had a very good relationship with Unite Here,” Oxtoby said in an interview with TSL. He cited regular joint labor-management conference meetings. “If any issues come up, that’s the time to raise them,” he said.

The delegation was met by Oxtoby and Karen Sisson, Pomona's vice president and treasurer. Oxtoby affirmed the college’s commitment to working with the union, while Sisson called for workers to voice complaints during joint labor-management committee meetings.

“We were at the joint labor-management committee meeting on Friday,” Sisson said, “where we expected all of these issues to come forward with the federal mediator present. We were told by the federal mediator that the union refused to come. We had worked with you in other JLMCs before, we’ve reached agreements. The bargaining agreement does provide processes for these things.”

One worker responded in indignation. “You want us to go sit down quietly in a meeting when it’s obviously not working?” she asked, claiming that Sisson has not attended a JLMC for months.

Dissatisfied with the administration’s response, the crowd left Oxtoby’s office to chants of “What are we ready for? Alumni weekend!”

“I’m not convinced that the administration is fully listening, and I’m not convinced that they’re taking action,” Shahriari-Parsa said. “We will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure workers receive the respect they deserve.”

Oxtoby said he is committed to nurturing a positive relationship with dining hall staff and their union representatives.

“Speaking as an organization and speaking for the senior leadership,” Oxtoby said, “I think we have the highest respect for our dining service workers.”

Henry Easton-Koehler, Julie Tran, Marc Rod, and Samuel Breslow contributed reporting.