Three student volunteers for Workers for Justice (WFJ) filed a report with Campus Safety and the Claremont Police Department (CPD) early this week alleging that Pomona’s Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services Bob Robinson displayed an act of “public violence” during a March 3 meeting between Robinson and the students. According to a letter released by the students, Gabe Lewin PO ’13, Claire Cahen PO ’11, and Julie Juarez PO ’12, Robinson “became angry, stood up, and started walking away. He then turned back, kicked his chair toward Ms. Cahen, knocking it over, and left” in the middle of their conversation.
According to Cahen and Lewin, Robinson had contacted Cahen to set up an informal meeting with no specific agenda for discussion. The four parties met in the Smith Campus Center courtyard at an outdoor table last Thursday at 3 p.m.
Lewin explained that the parties discussed workers’ issues and concerns for about 15 minutes, discussing matters such as gender discrimination and injuries in the workplace. Cahen expressed dissatisfaction with the content of the meeting, describing it as “very unproductive.”
“A lot of what we were talking about was not relevant to this actual labor conflict,” Lewin added.
Despite the “circular” nature of the conversation, Cahen explained that the tone of the conversation was civil.
“There was no yelling, there was no escalation, there was no hand-gesturing, fist-pounding, none of that,” she said.
Cahen claimed the parties eventually entered a discussion about the recent voluntary termination of dining hall employee Maria “Yo Yo” Garcia. Though she originally tried to bring the conversation back to current workers, Cahen said Robinson was adamant about discussing Garcia’s termination.
Cahen said she asked Robinson whether he thought the college could “do better than Federal labor laws,” which are what Robinson cited as allowing the college to count Garcia’s maternity leave as a part of her time off due to injury. Cahen suggested this tactic was a kind of gender discrimination. According to Cahen, it was at this point that Robinson became heated.
“[Robinson] said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t make those decisions.’ Then, he seemed very exasperated and said, ‘I know where you’re going with this. You’re trying to bait me.’ [He] walked off, came back, kicked a chair towards us, and left,” Cahen said.
According to Cahen, Robinson took approximately a step away from the table upon standing up, then turned back, looked at her, and kicked the chair in her direction.
“It fell in my direction, yes,” she said. “Did it touch me? No. Nor was there really a possibility of it touching me. I don’t think his intention was to physically harm me.”
“It was certainly not accidental,” she added.
WFJ volunteer Rachel Ramirez PO’ 11 said she was inside the Coop Fountain while the meeting between Robinson and the three students was going on. Ramirez said she looked up and saw Robinson absent from the table and the chair knocked on its side. She said she then walked outside to discuss what had happened with the three students, who seemed “really shaken,” and helped them make the decision to call Campus Safety. However, no direct eyewitnesses to Robinson’s allegedly “violent” behavior have been identified.
The three students also filed a report with CPD the following day.
Cahen said that she felt Robinson’s action “sent a message of violence and intimidation towards students supporting the [WFJ] campaign.” She characterized the incident as a part of a “larger pattern of behavior of intimidation of workers” by dining hall management, which she said has included “threatening to fire people for days off, going to speak to them one on one, things like that.”
“The employer has tremendous power over the worker in asking them what their complaints about the workplace are or why they stated specific things,” she added.
Cahen characterized informal meetings such as the one that took place between her and Robinson as intimidation. Lewin and Cahen both emphasized that the incident demonstrates the need for unionization.
Robinson declined to comment on the incident, explaining that his superiors directed him not to speak on the issue yet.
Pomona’s Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson, Robinson’s supervisor, said that the college is investigating the allegations using the same process that is followed after any allegation of violence in the workplace. According to Sisson, the process will involve interviews with all parties involved, and will be handled by the college’s Human Resources department.
For now, Sisson explained, they are asking Robinson to refrain from talking about the incident.
“We have directed Bob Robinson not to speak publicly,” Sisson said. “Obviously, I cannot direct students to comply with that request, but as an employee we have directed Bob not to respond—I’m sure he would like to—until this investigation is complete.”
According to Sisson, “[the administration is] taking the allegations seriously and there are serious potential consequences… We will have to look at some of the college’s policies and procedures to see what those consequences would be both for Mr. Robinson, potentially, but also for students, because if these are false allegations, that also carries some serious consequences since these allegations are made that could put someone’s livelihood in jeopardy,” she said.
Sisson said that the college will “perform the investigation, and then depending on the outcome of that investigation, that will determine what comes next.”
Cahen and Juarez later set up a meeting with President David Oxtoby to express their concern over the incident and ask for negotiations to resume. According to Cahen, Oxtoby said “negotiations wouldn’t move forward now because [the school] had to look into these claims.”
Cahen said she was especially disheartened by this response.
“I’m really dismayed that it’s being framed as an either/or choice,” Cahen said. “That a case in which it was serious enough to file a Campus [Safety] report because we felt threatened by someone who’s in a senior position at the college, the choice would be either: remain silent and have the workers’ rights and demands respected, or speak and have their rights ignored,” she said. “And since they’re linked… I find it really regrettable that it’s being framed as a choice at all.”
Lewin explained that he hopes this incident will help spur negotiations between the administration and WFJ regarding a union election process, which he said was their main concern.
“We’re not calling for firing; we’re not calling for discipline,” he said. “We’re calling for a democratic process.”
This week, the students involved in the incident published a letter describing their allegations and calling for immediate negotiations, which they handed out at tables in Frank and Frary dining halls and also at the offices of all faculty.
On Tuesday, a group of WFJ student supporters also marched to Alexander Hall to deliver the letter to Oxtoby and Sisson.
Later that day, Sisson sent an e-mail to all students, faculty and staff, asking the community to “respect the rights of those involved to a fair and unbiased inquiry” and to allow the process to be completed “untainted by advocacy, rumor, or speculation.”
On Wednesday, Pomona Vice President and Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum sent all students an e-mail that characterized the use of a bullhorn during the march on Tuesday as “disruptive to the regular activities of the College” and thus a potential violation of the college’s demonstration policy. “Beyond the emotional distress, a number of staff also noted that the bullhorns interfered with the operations of their offices,” she wrote.
According to Sisson, the investigation into the chair-kicking incident will ideally be completed before spring break. She emphasized her hope that the community will “respect all parties in this process and respect the fact that this is a serious allegation, and that we should let the process work and let the facts come out there.”