Professors Discuss Campus Labor Problems

Pomona College faculty spoke about past and present labor struggles on campus at “Pomona College: Community or Corporation?” on Nov. 13 in the Frank Blue Room.History professors Sidney Lemelle and Toms Summers Sandoval gave short lectures followed by small group discussions and a question-and-answer portion.Lemelle, who also is a professor of Africana Studies, began by discussing a letter he received from a man saying he had grown up in the Claremont barrio, an area east of the campuses where most of the workers at the 5Cs lived. The man compared the barrio to a concentration camp, citing experiences in which he had been ostracized, brutalized and cursed.After stating his initial surprise that the barrio existed and still does, Lemelle listed eight worker support organizations created since the 1980s as he recapped their history at the college, from the Progressive Student Alliance to the Workers Support Committee (WSC) that exists today.He mentioned a history department meeting in which students unexpectedly showed up to monitor the discussion.“Students have power they don’t even recognize and I’ve seen it,” Lemelle said. “In 25 years, I’ve seen it over and over again. [The history department meeting] was a classic moment where students seized control and began to talk about the issues that affect their lives, not only them as students but also the people related to issues of workers rights.”Lemelle addressed current problems in the relationship between the managers and staff, saying he does not use words like “oppression” and “exploitation” lightly.“There have been instances where it was readily apparent that workers had been intimidated by their supervisors—‘Why are you talking to [people in workers support organizations]? What are you telling them?’ These sorts of things,” Lemelle said. “It’s the administration and those who make the administration accountable who should be [fixing] this.”Lemelle said there has been a history of staff workers claiming they do not trust the administration and have felt, on several occasions, “stabbed in the back” by administrators.“Where I think WSC and other faculty and staff will understand they can play a role also is this: Do not let these issues fall on deaf ears,” Lemelle said. “The administration has to take a lead in this, and when I say administration I’m talking internal because there are administrators in this room, several of which I know, because I’ve talked to them, who are very much involved in these things. But it has to be something that the upper echelon ofadministration really takes to heart and deals with. There have been attempts, not as successful as most of us would like, and there is still a hell of a lot of work to do.”Summers Sandoval, a scholar of Latino history, began his speech by placing two tomatoes on the desk, which he said represented the poor working conditions under which the tomatoes were produced.“[When I look at the tomato,] I also see a tomato embedded with a kind of violence, a violence rooted in the kinds of case structures that people work under in order to produce tomatoes in this country,” Summers Sandoval said. “When I eat that tomato, I am benefiting from that person’s exposure to violence, something that reverberates in their lives in different ways from their workplace and reverberates back into their daily lives with their families. For me, it gives me an opportunity to live, and I don’t minimize that when I eat a tomato, that someone has encountered an experience with a level of violence in their daily life so that I can live, to produce the food that literally, not in any sort of symbolic sense but that in a very literal way, sustains my life.”Summers Sandoval said he does not believe that one can separate the market from its negative social consequences.He said a secondary labor economy made up of workers supports and provides for the primary labor economy, and this system entails a moral responsibility.Accepting the current labor situation by saying “This is just the way that it is” perpetuates oppression and abuse, Summers Sandoval said. It is our moral responsibility to be aware and, in turn, to act. Choosing instead to accept current realities is more harmful than ignorance, he said. A question from an audience member turned attention to the role student organizations play in communication between staff and administration.“How do you not cross the line between student support of workers and simply dictating to workers their cause, in other words, speaking for them and not letting them speak for themselves?” Lemelle asked. “It’s a very tricky issue.First, you have to be able to listen and understand what the issues are; don’t just assume that these are the issues.”Summers Sandoval agreed, adding students should feel compelled to act because of their moral responsibility.“I don’t think that workers need you like one might think that they do,” Summers Sandoval said. “I think you need you.”WSC member Samuel Pang PO ‘12, who moderated the event, also responded to the question.“The Workers Support Committee is moving toward a position of solidarity with workers,” Pang said. “We’re not trying to speak for workers, but having to speak for workers shows this inherent problem that there is a lack of empowerment of workers and their ability to speak at Pomona College. We’re moving towards a position of solidarity so we can stand with them and empower them to speak for themselves.”Discussions that followed centered around issues including keeping a workers support organization effective as members cycle through every four years; creating a senate or council through which staff can bring grievances to the administration and the school at large; and ingrained attitudes and social constructs in place at Pomona as a small, liberal arts college in which everything outside of the classroom is designed to be organized and easy.

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