Neutrality Agreements at Center of Discussion

At a rally during Pomona College’s Family Weekend in February, Frary Dining Hall cook Crystal Flores said that even the presence of one of the Frary sous-chefs (a dining services management position) at the rally was intimidating to her.

“It’s intimidating to be standing here speaking out while my manager is standing in the back taking notes,” Flores said.

This type of intimidation is why Workers for Justice (WFJ) is demanding a full-neutrality agreement, which would prevent Pomona’s administration, the Board of Trustees, and all dining services management from saying or publishing anything related to unionization for an indefinite period of time leading up to a vote.

After extended resistance from the Pomona administration, on Wednesday WFJ decided to move forward without a full-neutrality agreement, and filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold elections for a union before the end of the semester. WFJ will continue pursuing full-neutrality until the vote. 

This holdout for full-neutrality has, until now, been at the heart of the issues preventing WFJ from calling a vote on unionization. The Pomona administration has rejected the full-neutrality proposal on the grounds that they believe it would silence the college, contrary to the school’s commitment to free speech and preventing them from being able to answer questions or respond to misinformation about unionization.

The college’s longstanding counterproposal for “limited neutrality” describes WFJ’s proposal of full-neutrality as: “A gag order being placed on the College. The College’s management would be required to remain silent on the issue of unionization indefinitely—potentially for months or even years, until WFJ decided that they were ready to seek an NLRB election.”

A full-neutrality agreement similar to the one WFJ is still seeking was reached between dining hall workers at the University of La Verne and its dining services management, Bon Appétit, in October of 2012. In March of 2013, La Verne workers held a vote that decided in favor of a union.

According to Vice President and Treasurer of Pomona Karen Sisson, there is a crucial difference between the situation at La Verne and the situation at Pomona. Pomona self-manages its dining services, while University of La Verne employs Café Bon Appétit to run their operation; thus, at La Verne, the university was separated from the issue.

“Food service workers at the University of La Verne are employees of Bon Appétit and not the University. According to my understanding, the university did not take a position and viewed this as an internal matter between Bon Appétit and its employees,” Sisson wrote in an e-mail to TSL.

Pomona’s limited-neutrality agreement proposes a set number of mandatory dining hall staff meetings for both WFJ and the college to “ensure that every staff member is making their decision based on the same level of information and has an equal opportunity to ask questions.”

WFJ has vehemently opposed this particular condition, arguing any presence of dining services management during meetings where workers can talk openly and ask questions about unionization creates an intimidating atmosphere due to the power dynamic an employer holds over their employees.

According to Pomona economics professor Fernando Lozano, the main issue is the use of information for intimidation.

“Information is a two-way problem: What info is the college giving to the workers, and what info are the workers giving to the college?” Lozano said.

Lozano said a neutrality agreement can either create high-quality or low-quality information. High-quality information comes from a harmonious relationship between the two groups, whereas avoiding cooperation and collaboration creates bad information.

Pomona politics professor David Menefee-Libey said that although there are not specific incidents at Pomona of direct intimidation that he is aware of, there is definitely a precedent established through past situations involving unionization that adds legitimacy to WFJ’s concerns about intimidation.

“There’s lots and lots of precedent for unions locally, nationally, historically, globally, whatever, to be concerned about intimidation,” Menefee-Libey said. “At Pomona, there is a history of somewhat sour relations between new supervisors and employees at times … so it’s sensible from their side, if they’re seeking to win a union certification, that they would ask for the employer to grant neutrality.”

However, he added that the Pomona administration also has a very valid reason to want to retain its voice in the debate and not commit to a total-neutrality agreement.

“The other side of the coin is that it’s perfectly conventional for employers and supervisors to want to be able to speak about a union campaign, in part because it’s a public debate and if they can’t speak, they often think no one is speaking on the other side,” Menefee-Libey added.

Joanmarie Del Vecchio contributed reporting for this article.

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