Early last week, workers at Pitzer College entered their first union contract with the school, following months of arbitration and over two years of wins and setbacks while organizing.
With their three-year contract in effect Sept. 4, Pitzer staff now have annual salary increases, respected seniority and union safeguards against terminations and other disciplinary actions.
The absence of these protections had been a source of tension between the college, union and members of the 7C community. Throughout 2023, Claremont College students and workers organized campaigns to advocate for workers they claimed had been unfairly terminated.
Most recently, union leaders and student members of the Claremont Student Worker Alliance (CSWA) organized a campaign to rehire longtime custodial workers Jose “Pepe” Vázquez and Gregorio Reyes, who were fired on Jun. 2 for taking a weathered couch donated to ReRoom, a program in which students donate unwanted items for students to buy at the following academic year.
The community-wide outrage following this decision led Pitzer to reinstate Vázquez and Reyes to their former positions with seniority on Jul. 13. They returned to work on Jul. 17.
“I’m really happy and glad that Pitzer gave me and my coworkers another chance, and thanks to all the professors and students for fighting for us,” Vázquez, who has worked for Pitzer for 17 years, told TSL following his reinstatement.
In a joint statement with UNITE HERE Local 11, the labor union that now represents Pitzer workers, Pitzer’s administration said the initial decision was made after “careful consideration” and “in the best interests of the Pitzer community at the time.”
“Pitzer maintains that the decision was fair, appropriate and consistent with Pitzer College’s policies and practices,” Pitzer’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Laura Troendle wrote in the statement. “However, after open and heartfelt conversations last week between Gregorio and Pepe, Pitzer College and Local 11, Pitzer College offered Gregorio [Reyes] and Pepe [Vázquez] another chance with reinstatement to their previous positions.”
A couch, a firing and a surge of community activism
The rain-damaged couch lay untouched for two to three weeks in a pile near a dumpster, according to Vázquez. After judging that it would be soon discarded, Vázquez said he and Reyes took the couch, intending to repurpose it and keep it for personal use.
Pitzer stated that this action was theft because the couch was intended for ReRoom and therefore demarcated as Pitzer property.
Students and workers supporting Vázquez and Reyes said they felt the termination was unjust, with Morales stressing that their wrongdoing was not driven by malicious intent, but rather by need.
“These are two longtime workers and the way that they’re treated does not align with the respect and dignity that they’re warranted just as people and also as folks who have given so much to the school,” CSWA member Mo Gardner PZ ’25 said.
Pitzer faculty members also voiced disagreement with the way the situation was handled.
“There could be retraining … but that firing is really just going too far,”said José Calderón, Pitzer professor of sociology.
Vázquez and Reyes were suspended for a week starting May 26. They were then informed of their termination during a Jun. 2 meeting with five of their union-represented coworkers.
“The people that we work alongside every day, our supervisors, were in there and wouldn’t even make eye contact with us,” Morales, who was present at the meeting, said.
To advocate for Vázquez and Reyes, workers delegated multiple times to Pitzer’s Human Resources office, along with a small group of students and alumni. Members of CSWA established a mutual aid fund for the two terminated workers and a community art sale on their Instagram page, with proceeds going toward the fund.
In an email sent to all Pitzer staff shortly after Vázquez and Reyes’s termination, Caballero indirectly addressed their policy violation and reiterated practices surrounding ReRoom.
“For the past 5+ years it has been regularly discussed in meetings that items left behind are for ReRoom,“ Caballero wrote. “Each member of the facilities team has been notified of this practice for years.”
A looming contract and more promises for improved working conditions
Since Pitzer and the union were still negotiating the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at the time of Reyes’ and Vázquez’ termination, safeguards against unfair termination, progressive discipline and a grievance process were not in effect, union leaders Jose Ochoa and Tomás Morales said.
Pitzer previously maintained at-will employment, in which the employer or employee can terminate employment at any time without the need for just cause.
Now, the CBA establishes progressive discipline, an approach consisting of increasingly severe penalties leading up to termination. It also sets forth a series of wage raises in periodic increments, which will amount to a total of $6.75 by July 2025. Additionally, Pitzer will pay 95 percent of employees’ healthcare costs.
Union representative Arun Ramakrishna PZ ’22 alleged that the union and Pitzer had informally agreed on progressive discipline in the months prior to the CBA being finalized, and therefore should not have treated Vázquez and Reyes as at-will employees.
“If the College was committed to the idea that progressive discipline is appropriate, to ensure that people are not terminated without a just cause, then they should honor that even in the couple of weeks prior to the CBA being signed and finalized,” Ramakrishna said.
Meanwhile, Troendle said Pitzer provided anticipated pay increases ahead of time and that it made an effort to ensure Vázquez and Reyes were not penalized even though the CBA was not finalized.
“The details of the employees’ specific situations is confidential. However, we continue to work hard at Pitzer to support our employees’ success in their positions, and termination is always undertaken very seriously and as a last resort,” Troendle told TSL.
Ramakrishna reflected on these recent union victories, including the rehiring of Pepe and Gregorio and the completed CBA, the latter which took over six months of labor negotiations and arbitration.
“The Claremont colleges are prestigious, high revenue institutions and should be thought of as such,” Ramakrishna said. “Through collective action, we can fight these companies … it doesn’t erase the bad thing that happens, but at the very least creates accountability and gives workers more power in their workplace.”
Workers and union representatives said they will forge their path forward by ensuring that Pitzer adheres to the contract’s terms.
“They got fired on May 26. At that moment we asked for a second chance, but they said no,” Ochoa said. “If [Pitzer] truly believed they deserved a second chance, they’d have said so on the spot.”