Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice (SSWJ) held a rally on Pomona College’s Marston Quadrangle on Saturday afternoon. The group is asking the college to sign an agreement that would allow food-service employees to vote on whether or not to form a union.
The organizers are proposing a “card-check” unionization process mediated by an agreed-upon third party, but President David Oxtoby has resisted that process, saying the vote would not preserve employees’ anonymity.
The rally began with a crowd of over 100 students and college employees circled around the entrance to Big Bridges, drumming and chanting. Three members of the Claremont Colleges Mariachi Band played songs, while organizers handed out orange armbands, a symbol of solidarity with the workers.
Father Patrick Guillen, a retired Catholic priest with the San Bernardino Diocese, spoke first, addressing the crowd with the rallying cry of “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”).
“Our nation is in a crisis because we’ve followed the path of power and arrogance rather than the path of humility and democracy,” he said. “We are gathered here today to show our solidarity with the workers, those who do the hardest work and get the least.”
The crowd swelled as the rally continued, more than doubling in size in spite of intermittent rain. Many participants held signs, reading “Dignity for Workers,” “Fairness at Work,” and “Justice.”
Several employees voiced complaints about the college, citing unequal salaries between employees and unfair treatment after injuries on the job.
“We have freedom of expression and we should be able to vote for a union,” said Edith Rosales. “We are asking for student support, and for Oxtoby to sign the neutrality agreement.”
That declaration came just days after Oxtoby restated his intention to refuse the college’s neutrality toward a card-check vote. The card-check process could be structured several ways but usually involves workers getting a card that allows them to affirm or reject a union. The cards could then be submitted to a third party that would tabulate the vote. If more than half of the workers voted yes, the college would be bound to recognize a union.
Anthony Chvez, grandson of labor leader César Chvez, spoke at the rally about his grandfather’s legacy of “uniting people.”
“Our workers should be allowed to vote in the privacy of their homes without management interference,” he said. “What’s really at stake — here at Pomona College and across the nation — is simple self-determination.”
While some labor experts see card check as the fairest and fastest process for workers, Oxtoby said he preferred a secret-ballot process administered by the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency with jurisdiction over labor issues. In an e-mail to The Student Life Tuesday, Oxtoby said that he hoped to solve the dispute quickly, and pledged that the college would not “harass or retaliate against” employees who support a union. He has also said that he would support workers if they did choose to unionize.
Benny Avina, who has worked at Pomona since 1985, thanked students at the rally for their support.
“It is hard for you students to understand the injustices that are going on in the dining halls,” he said. “You are surrounded by beautiful architecture and landscaping. But my co-workers have faced accidents and injuries leading to firing. They lost their jobs, their houses, are very depressed, and could no longer support their families.”
His allegations could not be independently confirmed.
The rally came at the end of a two-day Board of Trustees gathering that brought many trustees to campus. Demonstrators marched to the Smith Campus Center courtyard and assembled around the fountain, directly below a room where students and trustees were discussing the college’s alcohol policy with sponsor groups. Orange “Workers for Justice” banners hung from the second story of the campus center.
ASPC President Jed Cullen said that as soon as the rally arrived in courtyard, most of the people in his meeting of the Trustee Review Committee on Alcohol Policy got up and watched for about 10 minutes.
“The trustees I talked to seemed really enamored by student support for the workers,” he said.
Board member Lynn Yonekura said she thinks there is a need for an “open forum” to discuss the issue. She added that students had “misperceptions” about the issue.“The trustees are aware of the issues and the events last week, and have seen the petition as well as copies of the letters that have circulated to the community,” said Teresa M. Shaw, a board aide. “During their two days on campus, some of the trustees did have casual conversations with students, as usually happens. The rally started after our board meeting ended on Saturday, and so I don’t know whether any trustees were present at the rally.”
After Chvez’s speech, members of the mariachi band led participants in a rendition of “De Colores,” a song that was used to conclude Chvez’s United Farm Workers of America meetings. The group then split up, with half marching to Frary and half marching to Frank.
Nick Gerber PO ’10, who is involved with Workers for Justice, said the current movement is “materially different” from efforts last year led by WSC and Stand with Staff.
“Workers have come together and decided they want a union,” he said. “Ninety percent have signed a petition for a fair process to get a union and have asked the college to grant that.”
Sam Gordon PO ’11, who is in charge of public relations for SSWJ, said employees work hard to support students and that he wanted to return the favor.
“Food-service workers are such an essential part of life here,” he said. “It’s such a luxury to not have to worry about your next meal, and to be served three times a day. And the dining hall workers do it as a labor of love: many of them consider students friends, and want to do the best job they can to make it as easy as possible for us to succeed. For them, it’s much more than a job, it’s something they love doing.”
The ASPC Senate said Wednesday that they are drafting a resolution that will address the union vote. They expect to issue the document this week.Approximately 40 percent of Pomona students have signed petitions in support of the union vote, according to organizers.
Lisa Gano PO ’11 is one of the students who signed the petition. A member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Gano said she came to the rally because of her religious beliefs.
“One of the main things we were praying for was that people wouldn’t approach the rally from a point of anger or hostility — people wanting to change things out of hostility or making scapegoats out of figures like President Oxtoby because directing everyone’s anger to certain scapegoats is not constructive,” she said. “We were praying that everyone would want to fight for this justice out of love and compassion for the workers.”
Trevor Hunnicutt and Travis Kaya contributed reporting to this article.