In an effort to end negotiations and move closer toward a vote on unionization, members and supporters of Workers for Justice (WFJ), the pro-union group of Pomona College dining hall employees, are organizing a boycott of Pomona’s dining halls this Saturday, Feb. 19, during Family Weekend.
During brunch and dinner hours on Saturday, student volunteers, laborers, and community members will march outside of Frank and Frary in a show of solidarity with the pro-union dining service workers. WFJ members will ask students and their families to eat in the Village or at one of the other 5C dining halls during those meals.
The boycott comes in the midst of a stalemate between the college administration and WFJ, as workers and student volunteers continue their year-long effort to achieve a labor peace agreement with the college. The workers first launched their campaign for unionization in March 2010. The main source of contention between the two sides now is how a vote on unionization would occur.
According to its website, Workers for Justice would accept a secret vote-by-mail system, provided that the administration agrees to neutrality. By agreeing to neutrality, the administration and dining hall management would agree not to discuss unionization in the workplace prior to the vote.
Pomona College President David Oxtoby said that the administration has been “ready… since last spring, to proceed with a rapid vote on unionization,” though only through a traditional secret ballot vote sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which WFJ would not accept.
While Oxtoby contends that the college has pledged not to engage in any means of intimidation in order to influence the workers’ votes, the WFJ website maintains that “a simple pledge not to intimidate does not go far enough.” It states that in the past, members of the administration have indicated that they “may be planning an aggressive anti-union campaign just prior to an NLRB election,” and it points to instances last spring when managers removed pro-union flyers from a bulletin board and when Oxtoby publicly asserted the school’s right to “tell workers about the disadvantages of unionization.’”
WFJ has promised to avoid economic actions such as strikes or the boycott this weekend if the college agrees to neutrality, which is not required under an NLRB vote.
So far, WFJ says the administration has not agreed to these terms.
A dining hall worker who wished to remain anonymous expressed hope that the boycott would send a clear message to the administration and help bring about unionization.
“It’s been a year and a half and we haven’t resolved anything. I want a solution,” the worker said. “We want good salaries, we want [the college] to lower insurance costs, and we want employment for twelve months. Right now we only have nine.”
While Pomona does not guarentee full-year employment for dining hall workers, the college announced last week at a quarterly staff meeting that all dining service employees who want summer work will be able to get it, thanks to an increase in summer conferences planned for this year.
Claire Cahen PO’11, one of the student volunteers for WFJ, pointed to high health care costs as a reason for workers to unionize. According to Cahen, healthcare costs for Pomona’s dining hall workers amount to about $330 per month, while they are typically paid less than $12 per hour for 8-9 months of employment each year. “That leaves almost nothing to pay for everything else—car insurance, rent, food,” Cahen said.
WFJ organized similar boycotts of the dining halls last year, though not during Family Weekend. The unprecedented decision to schedule the protest over Family Weekend is no doubt an attempt to reach out to parents of the freshman class and send a clear message to the administration.
“It’s something to get [the administration’s] attention,” said a dining hall worker who wished to remain anonymous. “We want an answer from them.”
Still, some students have expressed concerns over the aggressive tactics taken by WFJ to gain support for the boycott. This week, WFJ volunteers have been canvassing in the freshman dorms and table-hopping at meals and at snack, asking students to sign pledges that state they will not eat at the dining halls this Saturday.
“First-years are confronted with a tough decision this Saturday. Because parents have been required to make reservations for their meals over Parent’s Weekend, students are forced to either abandon their previous plans or face the guilt of breaking the picket line,’” said freshman class president Robert Chew PO’14. “I would very much like to see an agreement reached by both the administration and [dining employees].”
“I don’t see the issue as a zero-sum game in which one party must win and one party must lose, but rather as an issue in which compromise is essential,” he said. “I believe that forcing students to make largely uninformed decisions of allegiance does not create a healthy environment for change.”
Despite these concerns, WFJ members and student volunteers are hopeful that the boycott will help them gain some ground in the unionization debate.
“I’m sure parents will be just as concerned as students when they see that their sons and daughters are going to a school where the workers are not being respected,” Cahen said.
President Oxtoby said he is unable to predict what will happen as a result of Saturday’s events.
“I think parents should ask questions about this, and I hope we have good answers for them,” he said. “I hope they don’t feel that we are mistreating our workers, which I don’t think we are in any way.”