Pomona College is unlikely to allow its food-service workers to hold a “card-check” vote to form a union, President David Oxtoby said Tuesday.
Many of the dining hall workers petitioned the president this week to allow them to hold the vote on whether to form a food-service workers’ union, and asked the college to acknowledge a union if more than 50 percent of the workers vote in favor of it.
The employees and students led a demonstration to his office Monday. Scores of demonstrators sang and beat drums as they marched through campus. They walked up the stairs to Alexander Hall and into the president’s second-story office. Then they handed him petitions requesting the college’s neutrality towards a vote on starting a new, unaffiliated union. The petition also calls for the college to accept the results of that vote.
Workers said a union would create a better process for dealing with worker grievances, including their schedules and pay-raises. Dining hall staff are employed by the college, but managed by the food-service company Sodexho. This two-tier system complicates the way grievances are handled, according to Don Towns, a seven-year college veteran who works at Frary dining hall.
“A union would make it more fair for the employees,” he said. “There’s no middleman to tell you what to do and change your job. We just want to be equal.”
But Oxtoby said a union would mar the progress the college has made in the last year in responding to workers’ concerns.
“The assumption, often, with a union is that everything that you have now you will keep and you will get more — you will have all of the channels of communication and ways of working with the college which we’ve developed over the years,” he said. “I think that’s not correct. I think it’s a little naive.”
Under federal law, the approval of an employer is required to hold a “card-check” vote and form a union, according to Robert Bruno, Associate Professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Oxtoby said he opposed the proposal in part because the yay-or-nay votes of individual employees would be public knowledge with “card check,” an assertion that union supporters and labor experts said was not necessarily true.
When asked if the college would agree to the employees’ request, Oxtoby said. “We’re still discussing it, but I do not expect that we will because we support the basic principle of secret-ballot voting processes…. The card-check process is not that type of process.”
He said he could not envision a way for the process to be “truly anonymous.”
A “card-check” process allows workers to vote on whether they would like to have a union. Though the petition submitted by workers did not specify whether a third-party would administer the vote, outside parties commonly do.
The system could be structured in a variety of ways, some of which would ensure the employees’ anonymity, said Tom Juravich, a professor at the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Workers For Justice, which organized the march in support of the union vote, said they were in favor of a “card-check” system that would preserve employees’ anonymity. They said in a post on their website that Oxtoby offered a “calculated response meant to undermine the nature of the process without acknowledging the nuances of why a card-check is a democratic and preferable method for workers.”
Oxtoby also said the system would not allow for a full discussion of the workers’ grievances.
“I think it also bypasses the educational step of really discussing the issues,” he said. “[We would like] to have an open discussion and, sure, if the staff decide they don’t want to vote, that’s fine. If they decide they want to vote, we would certainly go along with that and encourage a secret-ballot vote so that the staff could make their views known.”
Oxtoby also said he would support an alternative, private voting process administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency with jurisdiction over labor issues.
But Workers for Justice and some labor experts said the NLRB election favors employers.
“The belief is that a traditional NLRB election is more democratic,” Juravich said. “It still gives, the way the law is written, the employer the upper hand….A card check is actually a more legitimate show of interest than we see in an NLRB election.”
The petition comes two months after college administrators announced a staff-led committee to address workplace issues.
“We’re almost ready to roll out our facilities and campus services committee,” Assistant Vice President Bob Robinson said last week. “This will be made up of staff from dining, maintenance, housekeeping [and] grounds as well as other staff, to talk about training opportunities, benefit programs, language issues, and other issues that arise.”
Under the plan, workers will vote for representatives to serve on the committee. Robinson said he expects the first meeting to be held during spring break.
But a union would represent a more dramatic shift in the way the college relates to its non-faculty staff. Labor experts said unions for these workers at colleges are fairly common, but collective-bargaining agreements at the Claremont Colleges are uncommon.
No Pomona employees are currently represented by unions, Oxtoby said.
Non-faculty staff are “usually the last ones that get a piece of the resource pile,” Bruno said. “They’re the folks that tend to get overlooked the easiest so grievances are usually very high.”
Bruno said employees such as these often have the most to gain — a “union premium” — from collective bargaining.
Several workers agreed that the union vote, if not a union itself, represented an opportunity to discuss long-felt grievances toward college policies and practices. Several grew emotional as they discussed their experiences recovering from on-the-job injuries and struggling to live on low salaries in videos posted on the Workers for Justice website.
As Oxtoby sent an e-mail to employees and students Wednesday Mar. 3 saying he hoped to continue dialogue, union supporters said they would continue to ask for a signed agreement from the college promising the administration will not interfere with a vote. They planned a rally for Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on the Marston Quadrangle, when members of the Board of Trustees are scheduled to come to campus.
David Park, Jordan Cohen, and Ian Gallogly contributed reporting to this article.