Representatives from the pro-unionization group of Pomona College dining hall workers, Workers for Justice (WFJ), met with college administrators on Monday to discuss the possibility of using a “vote-by-mail” system for unionization, which they proposed on May 12.
Under the new system, workers would submit their votes for or against unionization by mailing them in at their own convenience, and the administration would not be entirely restricted from participating in discussions about unionization.
“We agreed to give something up,” said a WFJ leader at a panel held on Sept. 13. “We said we’d do mail-in voting instead of card check because we want labor peace.”
Previously, WFJ had sought a card check neutrality agreement, which would bar all representatives of the college from participating in discussions about unionization and would not provide for voter secrecy in the ballot process.
The College has repeatedly rejected this proposal and instead supports a vote sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would allow the College to take part in discussions over unionization and would dictate that a secret ballot vote take place at a specific time and location.
The College and WFJ were at a standstill until the meeting on Monday, which is the first time representatives from the two parties have met since the spring.
“[WFJ], in their defense, have made a concession with the mail-in vote system,” said Pomona Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson. “But it still leaves room for intimidation, from either side.”
According to Sisson, the WFJ delegation at the Monday meeting consisted of several dining hall workers, two consultants and one student translator. The administration brought three representatives and its legal counsel.
At the meeting, the administration was not receptive to the vote-by-mail proposal introduced by WFJ in May, according to a worker who attended the meeting.
“The message they had was clear: we don’t want a union,” said the worker.
Sisson said the College was open to “neutrality,” whereby the administration would agree not to participate in union discussions, only during the first part of the process, when workers rally support for a union by accruing signatures. She also stipulated that on-call workers—part-time workers whose hours are variable—would not be allowed a vote in the unionization process, a provision that is unpopular with workers.
Meanwhile, workers continued to express dissatisfaction with the college-endorsed NLRB vote, which they say places too much power in the hands of the administration.
“The College could intimidate [under NLRB],” said one worker at the Sept. 13 panel. “They could bring in someone to talk about pluses/minuses of a union, but how do we know that person is not [biased]?”
Sisson responded by highlighting the importance of a two-sided conversation.
“You can’t cut off the free flow of ideas, particularly in an academic setting like this,” she said.
The push for unionization stems from years-old complaints from the dining hall staff of workplace injustices. These complaints include an insufficient health coverage plan, and, more recently, a lack of guaranteed summer hours.
Full-time dining hall staff at Pomona are eligible for the same health benefits that all Pomona staff members are offered, according to Sisson. These benefits are overseen by the Claremont University Consortium (CUC), not Pomona College, and cover 90 percent of an individual employee’s premiums if she or he is insuring only him or herself, and 70 percent of a worker’s premiums if she or he is covering his or her family.
Problems arise when dining hall workers do not work during the summer, because then they must use income from the rest of the year to pay summer insurance premiums, which can reach over $300 per month.
This begets a second worker complaint, concerning summer employment. Prior to 2008, workers had semi-guaranteed summer hours, Sisson said. However, since the recession hit and Pomona’s endowment lost nearly $500 million of its value (some of which was later regained), the College has not been in a position to guarantee summer employment to all workers, considering the uncertainty of summer programs and conferences, Sisson said.
“We know they can do better,” said one employee. “They can treat us better and they should want to have happy employees.”
Sisson acknowledged that some workers may be unsatisfied with their employment situation.
“I understand their desire for more than nine months [of guaranteed employment],” she said. “But students are here for only nine months. We’re based on a nine month school system.”
Workers maintained that they feel disrespected by the College, particularly with regards to intimidation from the administration in the event of an NLRB-sponsored union vote.
“They want to take away our right to discuss things. That’s against the law, and to us, that’s trash,” said a WFJ leader at the Sept. 13 panel.
Sisson argued that this fear may be the result of a miscommunication. Under the College’s proposed system, WFJ would have 30 minutes during regular, on-the-clock time in which to come into the workplace and present its views on unionization, she said. But these 30 minutes only refer to the specific union presentation and exclude all other time spent at or away from the workplace.
“We’re not limiting them,” Sisson said. “Workers can talk outside of work, at workers’ homes, or on the way to their cars before and after work.”
“We have everybody looking at us,” she added. “It would not be in our favor to intimidate,”
As WFJ continues negotiations with the administration, they will not be working with the group known as Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice. According to Sam Gordon PO ‘11, who had previously served as public relations manager for SSWJ, the group no longer exists as an official independent entity, although students will continue to advocate for dining hall workers’ rights.
“One big change to the campaign is that the student organizing group that existed last semester has been nixed, and student organizing is being done directly by Rolando Arias, one of the chefs at Frank,” Gordon said.