Frank and Frary dining halls were more crowded with patrons than expected on Saturday, Feb. 19, after the pro-union group of Pomona College dining employees, Workers for Justice (WFJ), decided to call off their previous plans to boycott the dining halls.
After a year of stalemated efforts to unionize, the organization had planned to draw the administration’s attention and raise awareness among parents during Family Weekend by calling for a boycott of brunch and dinner at Pomona’s dining halls. But instead of forming picket lines and asking patrons to eat elsewhere, WFJ student volunteers approached parents inside and outside the dining halls to discuss the workers’ cause.
According to Rachel Ramirez PO ’11, a WFJ student supporter, the change of plans came from the workers after “some very thoughtful and purposeful meetings between workers, where they sat down and talked… they decided that while they do want to raise awareness about their issues, they don’t want to disrupt parents’ weekend, because they care about us and they care about parents’ comfort.”
According to Ramirez, the plans for a boycott changed throughout the week leading up to Family Weekend. She said that the administration held a private meeting with WFJ student volunteers during the week to dissuade them from staging a boycott, but that the decision ultimately came from the workers.
Ramirez also claimed that a member of the administration sat down with workers and asked them individually whether they “really want[ed] to make parents that uncomfortable” by going through with the boycott, though this claim could not be confirmed.
President David Oxtoby said of the weekend, “We were glad that students and their parents were not put into any kind of confrontational or pressured situation.” Oxtoby also said that in response to parents’ questions regarding the college’s standpoint on the issue, “[the college] emphasized our consistent position in favor of a secret ballot decision process with no intimidation.”
Throughout mealtimes on Saturday, WFJ representatives informed parents of the issues motivating the workers’ campaign for unionization, which include poverty-level wages, high health care costs, and a lack of guaranteed summer employment. According to Ramirez, the volunteers asked supportive audiences to sign petitions in support of the workers’ demand for a fair process to winning a union, as many dining service employees have concerns that they will face intimidation from the college during the unionization vote.
“[The petition] doesn’t necessarily say, ‘I support unions,’” Ramirez said. “It just says that workers should be able to go forward with this in a way that will protect them.”
President Oxtoby has pledged publicly that employees involved in the campaign for unionization would not face intimidation from the college.
WFJ estimates that 300 parents signed petitions on Saturday and that a handful of parents pledged to withhold donations to the school until the issue has been resolved.
Still, some parents were not won over by WFJ’s canvassing strategy.
“I felt it was inappropriate to ask visitors from 1,000 miles away visiting their freshman son for one time in four months to understand the complexity of the issues,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous. “Not to mention interrupting a meal,” the parent added.
“I signed the petition for two reasons. One: an opportunity to vote is an important democratic process. Two: so the petitioners would leave so we could enjoy our lunch.”
Security officers stood outside both dining halls on Saturday. According to Ramirez, the administration had not been informed of the decision to call off the boycott.
Community members also became involved in the actions on Saturday. The Pilgrim Pickers, a musical group from Claremont’s local Pilgrim Place, performed songs of solidarity for a crowd outside Frary before dinner on Saturday evening.
One worker gave a speech after the music, in which she presented her grievances to the crowd, including her feeling that the situation has only become worse with the new dining hall management.
“I’m really ashamed of how the college treats [the workers],” said Ramirez. “I just can’t believe that employees of our college are struggling to survive.”