Negotiations to organize a unionization vote resumed April 25 after a three-month hiatus at a meeting between Workers for Justice (WFJ) and the Pomona administration. The resumed negotiations come on the heels of an announcement to dining hall staff over spring break that the college would allow them to elect 9-month or 12-month employment this fall.
According to Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson, WFJ agreed to an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—an unexpected and momentous concession—in exchange for an agreement to total neutrality by the administration during the process. The parties have not yet reached a final agreement, but they hope to do so in two scheduled meetings next week.
“WFJ told us that they would agree to an NLRB election, which has been a huge sticking point since the beginning,” Sisson said. “Early on, they had expressed a great deal of concern about any kind of NLRB process because of delays with appeals and so forth, so this was quite surprising to us; I think we are very happy about that development.”
The NLRB election would entail a one-day secret ballot vote, according to a letter that WFJ distributed to the Pomona College community. The letter also stated that WFJ would agree to refrain from publicity campaigns, which WFJ representatives said could include boycotts, marches, emails to alumni, and postings on WFJ’s website.
“This was a difficult decision for us because these concessions further limit the protections workers would have leading up to a vote,” the letter stated. “However, if the administration is willing to remain completely neutral with regards to our decision whether or not to form a union, we believe the condition could allow for a democratic election to take place.”
Dining hall employee and WFJ delegate to the negotiation meeting Christian Torres said of the concession, “Basically, all the members of the committee decided that if they give us total neutrality, then we’d give them the NLRB election, and it wouldn’t be a big problem. It was difficult because we wanted a card-check vote at the beginning. But we’re trying to be flexible with them.”
According to WFJ’s letter, an agreement to total neutrality would prohibit dining hall management from distributing literature pertaining to unionization, hiring union consultants, and holding captive audience meetings and one-on-one meetings regarding the unionization.
“Total neutrality means saying absolutely nothing, not talking about unions with employees, ” Torres said. “It’s important because managers could speak with employees in favor of the administration and say things that aren’t true to break us apart, and that creates fear among the employees.”
“We’ve already seen that the administration would prefer to work without a union; they’ve already said it,” Torres added. “And using that, they might say anything they want.”
Sisson explained that the college was not willing to concede complete neutrality as WFJ defined it in its offer.
“The college has always been operating on two guiding principles,” Sisson said. “One is that we could not accept the principle of total neutrality, because we are an educational institution: we believe in the free exchange of views, and we believe it’s important for people to make decisions with complete information, and so we have wanted to make sure our speech during any kind of union campaign was not prohibited… I think we can speak to management’s intentions better than anyone, and we can speak to our actions, which is not to say that others might interpret them differently, but we’d like the ability to ascribe our own motivations and our own intent.”
“The concept of being able to speak and exchange views freely is not just an administrative concept,” she added. “It’s one that has been embraced and supported by the entire campus community, by many faculty, many students, many other staff members.”
Sisson said that the administration has been willing to negotiate an agreement to partial neutrality, which was the starting point of the conversations at the April 25 meeting.
Torres acknowledged this offer, but said he did not think partial neutrality would make for a fair process of unionization.
Dining hall employee and WFJ member Don Towns said that he and other workers have experienced “subtle forms of intimidation” from management, such as managers asking workers to remove their WFJ buttons and preventing them from talking about the union at work. Towns said that neutrality would protect the workers during the process.
“Neutrality gives us the power to develop the union according to union guidelines,” he said.
Sienna Kuykendall PO ’13, a student supporter of WFJ, agreed.
“Neutrality would give the worker more strength in that situation, and there wouldn’t be the intimidation on that micro level that’s really personal, and that can really harm or influence workers,” she said.
Both the administration and WFJ supporters expressed their hope that the issue might be resolved in the next two meetings after this significant development. Negotiations are set to continue May 4 and May 6.
“We put very important things to us on the table; they know that,” Torres said. “This has been a big advancement….I feel confident that we’ll reach an agreement.”
Sisson agreed. “We’re thrilled about the NLRB position… I really hope we can get to a mutually agreeable resolution because I think it would be healthy for everybody,” she said.
According to Sisson, the college has also been conducting a compensation study with consulting company Mercer, as well as looking into ways to make healthcare options more affordable for workers.
However, workers have not been given a concrete promise outlining these potential changes, according to dining hall employee and WFJ member Juan Flores. Without a firm guarantee regarding new benefits, Flores said, these developments have not changed WFJ’s commitment to the union campaign.