When Workers for Justice (WFJ) members and supporters gathered Thursday to announce that they had complained to a federal agency about allegedly poor workplace safety conditions at Pomona College, it looked like their demonstration would follow a familiar procedure.
Workers, students and union organizers convened at Sixth Street and College Avenue, close to Alexander Hall. They chanted “What do we want? Justice!” as they marched into the administrative building. UNITE HERE organizer Noel Rodriguez PO ’89 wore his signature tweed blazer.
None of this was out of the ordinary for WFJ, the pro-union group of Pomona dining hall workers. Yet, when the protesters arrived at the office of Pomona Treasurer Karen Sisson PO ’79, the result was not so ordinary. In an unscripted display of emotional candor from both sides, Sisson and chef Rolando Araiza argued openly over who was to blame for the past two years of labor unrest at Pomona.
“Why is this not being fixed?” Araiza asked Sisson. “It has been two years already I’ve been complaining, coming in here and telling you the problems.”
“You have not been coming in here,” Sisson said. “You’ve been in here five times in my office, always with a group of people like this, expecting me to act with no specifics, no time, no names, nothing except a group of 60 people.”
“If 60 people came to me, then I would see that there is a problem and I need to fix it,” Araiza said.
“Rolando, we know there are some issues, OK?” Sisson said. “We’re trying to work on them. I’m not saying that things are perfect. I’ve never said that.”
Five Pomona dining workers sent a letter of complaint to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) Thursday, alleging that they had been injured because of workplace conditions that violated state safety rules. The complaint listed two workers who allegedly had “suffered physician-diagnosed repetitive-motion injuries” and one who allegedly had “suffered injuries related to slips, trips and falls.”
The five workers also complained that many dining hall staff members had not received sufficient training to meet California’s safety standards, and they asserted that some employees had come to work when they were sick because they were too intimidated to stay home.
Sisson told Araiza that she intends to fix any problems that Cal/OSHA might uncover.
“I’m not afraid of OSHA,” she said. “That’s what they’re there for, to make sure you’re all in a safe working environment. I want you guys to have a safe working place. I want you to feel good about coming to work.”
“Yet, the last two years, we’re in a fight,” Araiza said.
“You know, I have other employees who tell me they’re in a fight with people on their doorstep, harassing them, giving them surveys,” Sisson said, apparently referring to accusations against WFJ organizers. “I have to represent all employees, not just one side.”
“The reason it’s been over two years is because no one will call for a vote,” she added. “If the workers want a union, hold a vote and have an election.”
WFJ has insisted that the Pomona administration must agree to a period of total neutrality before a union vote can be held. The administration has said that a neutrality agreement would unfairly silence the college’s voice.
Araiza said that the Pomona Office of Human Resources had failed to help him when he brought his complaints there. Sisson said that workers should be able to have problems addressed by their supervisors or by HR.
“On the other hand, sometimes things don’t happen the way they should, which is why I have said on many occasions, ‘Come to me directly,’” she said.
Sisson told TSL that she has not made any changes to her oversight of the HR office.
“I would just point out that we have heard Rolando’s side of the story,” she said. “I would like the opportunity to talk with Human Resources and see what has been said, and it remains to be seen if there were any breakdowns in the system.”