Hundreds of students, workers, immigrant rights advocates and union organizers gathered at Pomona College on March 30 in support of dining hall workers’ efforts to unionize. The rally, which came in the wake of the controversial firing of 17 Pomona employees in December, was organized by Workers for Justice (WFJ), UNITE HERE Local 11, and other labor groups.
The protesters called for the Pomona administration to rehire the 17 fired workers and to commit to neutrality in WFJ’s union-organizing campaign. UNITE HERE Local 11 leaders estimated that more than 800 supporters attended the rally.
“Today is César Chávez day, which is a special day, and that’s why we want to highlight that what he stood for was to protect all workers, no matter their immigration status, and to do the right thing,” said Tom Walsh, President of UNITE HERE Local 11. “We believe it was wrong for the college to respond in this way. It’s gone against all the traditions of Pomona College.”
The event culminated in what the organizers called a “Dining Hall in the Streets,” with lunch cooked and served by union members from outside Claremont. It also included a march from Shelton Park in the village to campus, musical performances and speeches by WFJ supporters and Congresswoman Judy Chu, Democrat of California.
“I think it’s fantastic that so many people are coming out for these workers,” Chu said. “These workers have been loyal to Pomona College. Some have worked here for as long as 20 years, and I think it was just really unjust that they were fired.”
Chu, who is running to represent the recently redrawn congressional district that will include Claremont, said that she hoped Pomona would rehire the 17 workers. She also called on the Obama administration to practice “prosecutorial discretion,” which would limit the scope of federal immigration enforcement to focus on deporting serious criminals, rather than taking broad action against peaceful undocumented immigrants and their employers.
In an official statement about the event, the Pomona College Office of Communications reiterated Pomona’s pledge to rehire any of the fired workers who can show work authorization documents by June 30 and its proposal for a deal with WFJ, under which the college would agree to neutrality during certain periods of the unionization process. The statement also said that the college does not oppose unionization.
Director of Media Relations Cynthia Peters said that Pomona did not object to the protest taking place.
“Pomona is a strong supporter of free speech,” she said at the rally. “It’s a wonderful demonstration of democracy.”
Rolando Araiza, a Pomona dining hall worker, said he was participating in the rally because he supports the efforts to unionize and is seeking a neutrality agreement with the college. He said that the firings and disagreements between WFJ and the administration have changed Pomona for the worse.
“It’s really depressing, it’s really sad,” Araiza said. “A lot of people don’t feel like they should belong to this type of school.”
However, he said that he was optimistic about the rally and what it demonstrated to the administration.
“We’re out here to show Pomona it’s time for peace,” he said. “Let workers decide for themselves if they want a union or not.”
Isabel Juarez PO ’13 applauded workers such as Araiza in a speech on College Avenue, which was partially blocked off for the event.
“Today is César Chávez’s holiday, and the president and his administration are unlikely to be in their offices, but the workers are in the dining halls,” she said. “The workers are always there. Their contribution is consistent, it’s essential, and it is largely overlooked or undermined.”
The event drew a diverse crowd representing numerous labor unions and activist groups in the Los Angeles area.
“It doesn’t matter where I’m a member,” said Irma Hallwood, a member of the Service Employee International Union Local 721 and a resident of L.A. “It’s about fighting for my sisters and brothers, no matter who they are or what local they’re affiliated with.”
When asked why she had come to support the WFJ efforts at Pomona, Hallwood repeated one of the rally’s slogans.
“I came because injustice to one is injustice to all,” she said.
The rally also attracted student supporters.
“It’s really exciting to see this much energy toward trying to help these workers get their jobs back,” Will Mullaney PO ’12 said.
Mullaney said that it is important to maintain pressure on the Pomona administration to get workers the neutrality they have been seeking.