Dining hall workers called for a student boycott of dinner at Frank and Frary dining halls on Wednesday in support of their push for a card check neutrality agreement on unionization.
The boycott was organized by the Workers for Justice (WFJ), a pro-union coalition of workers, and supported by Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice (SSWFJ), a group of students who support the workers’ cause.
Students and workers picketed outside the entrances of Frank and Frary, chanting “Si, se puede” and other protest chants. Students who attempted to enter the dining halls were encouraged to eat elsewhere, though they were not refused entry.
“The purpose of the boycott was to pressure President Oxtoby to sign the card check neutrality agreement,” said one worker who rallied outside Frary. “We’ve already sent letters. We know what the processes [for unionization] are and we want him to sign the neutrality agreement.”
The conflict stems from a disagreement over unionization processes. The administration supports a vote held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), while workers are requesting a card check neutrality agreement, which would give workers more say in how the vote is held and limit the administration from discussing unionization in the workplace.
An NLRB-sponsored election is a secret ballot, in that each worker’s vote is anonymous, but the administration would have the right to participate in the discussion process. WFJ claims that an NLRB election would allow the administration to pressure workers to vote against unionization.
Initial estimates indicated that less than 20 students ate at Frank and around 70 ate at Frary, compared to an average of 700-800, according to Claire Cahen PO ‘11, a member of SSWFJ.
The boycott immediately followed the release of a letter from Karen Sisson, vice president and treasurer of the college, in response to a letter sent by the WFJ on Apr. 23.
In the letter, Sisson expressed interest in meeting with workers to develop a fair process of unionization. “I hope we can have a constructive conversation that will lead to an agreement for proceeding in a timely manner,” Sisson wrote.
Workers objected to the timing of the letter’s release. “If they meant to stop [the boycott] by sending the letter, it didn’t work,” said one of the leaders of the WFJ. “This was going to happen.”
“It’s good they want to talk, because that’s what we want,” the worker said.
Sisson said the boycott will not have any bearing on negotiations for a unionization process. “In my view, the boycott has come up out of thecontext of the discussion that’s going on with the workers,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to influence the College’s actions in any way.”
Some students expressed feelings of discomfort or pressure surrounding the picketers. While a majority of students chose not to eat at Frank or Frary, several people interviewed for this story said they adhered to the boycott because they didn’t want to be looked down upon by the picketers or stigmatized by friends.
“It was so intimidating to walk by there,” said Ari Filip PO ’12, who ate at Collins. “If I had wanted to eat at Frary, there was no way that I would have gotten there on a solid conscience.”
“Were I to go to dinner at Frary, I feel like I would have been looked down upon strongly,” he said. “The whole situation made me feel very uncomfortable.”
Some students ate at Frank and Frary in spite of the boycott. Carson Williams PO ’13 and Jack Knauer PO ’12 ate at Frary.
“They’re saying that workers are being intimidated, but I don’t think anyone in [the picket line] is at all intimidated by anything,” said Williams. “I cannot respect what’s gone on tonight because it goes against everything they originally stood for.”
Knauer agreed. “If they’re as vocal as this, then they should not be intimidated. If they really wanted labor peace, they would just do the secret ballot,” he said.
Workers maintained that a secret ballot vote would not protect them from intimidation. “[NLRB] doesn’t protect us at all,” said a leader of the WFJ. “Under NLRB, [the administration] has all the power; they make all the decisions and we have nothing.”
“These are our lives; this is going to be for our families,” the worker said.
Sisson pointed out that a neutrality agreement would prohibit the administration from taking part in the discussion over unionization.
“Under a neutrality agreement, I couldn’t have participated in the PSU forum,” Sisson said, referring to a Pomona Student Union forum on the unionization process held on Apr. 6.
“We think it’s important for workers to be fully informed and educated about unionization,” Sisson said. “We’d prefer to have some kind of process for workers to hear both management’s perspective on unionization and the Workers for Justice perspective.”
Since the workers announced their campaign for a card check neutrality agreement, some workers have accused the administration of intimidation.
“Intimidation has already occurred in this campaign, through anti-union meetings,” said one worker who picketed at Frary, referring to a recent meeting held by Bob Robinson, assistant vice president and director of facilities and campus services.
Sisson said this may have been caused by a misunderstanding.
“In the particular meeting that’s being referred to, I spoke with some workers that attended and also some administrators, and the message being given was that no one has the right to intimidate,” she said.
“For some of our workers, English is not their first language, so if that was misinterpreted, that’s unfortunate,” she said.
Sisson also said that President Oxtoby was very clear in his position that he wants an environment with no intimidation, and that he doesn’t seek to delay a union vote.
“President Oxtoby has stated in some of his public pronouncements that management does not intend to make use of the appeals process,” she said. Under an NLRB vote, management can delay a vote on unionization for years through a series of appeals.
Some students expressed concern that the boycott and other WFJ events have been organized by students, rather than by workers.
“There would be no boycott if the Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice weren’t egging on our dining hall staff every step of the way,” said Daniel Ross PO ’11, the creator of the Facebook group, “Don’t Boycott. EAT at Frary! And Frank.”
“I support our workers,” Ross said. “These adults can form or not form a union without student intervention. It’s their decision and I hope we let them make it.”
Students who supported the boycott emphasized that the boycott and the WFJ movement were organized and motivated by workers, and that students were there for support.
“I would be really excited, as a student, to see the workers and the administration sit down and negotiate,” said Sara Kendall PO ’10, a member of SSWFJ. “That’s not something that students would be a part of.”
“We have a capacity to organize on campus to get support, and we’re not negotiating, nor are we trying to pressure students, nor are we organizing boycotts,” she said. “This is what the workers wanted to do, so we’ll organize around it.”
Workers agreed. “I know students are a big help and they support us a lot, but this is our fight,” said a WFJ leader.
“We’re still going to do this [over the summer]; we’re still going to do this or other stuff,” said the worker. “Doing this every weekend, every week—it’s going to make them think a lot.”
Supporters of the boycott expressed fears over the ability of the WFJ movement to continue throughout the summer, when students are away from campus.
“That’s what people are really worried about,” said Ryan Jawetz PO ‘12, a member of SSWFJ who picketed at Frank and Frary. “Historically, when the College has cut benefits and stuff, they’ve done it over the summer, or right before the summer, so people can’t really do anything about it because there aren’t any students here.”
On Thursday, Miriam Feldblum, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, sent an e-mail to all students addressing the boycott.
Feldblum expressed the college’s support for the rights of free speech and assembly, but urged students to recognize the college’s Demonstration Policy and Student Code, which prohibit actions that “restrict free movement on any of the campuses, or interfere with, or impede access to, regular activities or facilities of any of the Colleges or CUC.”