On Sunday, Feb. 20, during Pomona College’s Family Weekend Jazz Brunch at Frary Dining Hall, Workers for Justice (WFJ) demonstrators released a banner attached to dozens of helium-filled balloons inside the dining area. Their goal was for the balloons to suspend the banner’s message “Who Cooks Your Food?” in the rafters above the tables, far out of anyone’s reach. But before the plan was fully executed, a dining services manager grabbed the banner off of the balloons, crumpled it up, and escorted the demonstrators out of the building.
The release of the banner was an unexpected precursor to a demonstration scheduled for after Sunday’s brunch on the steps outside of Frary. The demonstration included dining hall workers, students, and members of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), who spoke out in support of WFJ’s pursuit of an agreement by the college’s administration to total neutrality in the period of time before the union election.
According to UNITE HERE researcher Jessica Choy, the one factor delaying any progress toward a vote on unionization is the college’s unwillingness to accept the terms of total neutrality proposed by WFJ.
“I believe it’s all about neutrality. The workers have reached out to, specifically, [Pomona President] David Oxtoby when the semester started. They delivered a letter to him asking for neutrality but also just to meet the organizing committee. [Vice President and Treasurer] Karen Sisson sent back a letter … and so she refused to meet with them,” Choy said.
WFJ members maintain that total neutrality would prevent administration and dining services managers from being able to use mandatory meetings and other means of communication as ways to intimidate workers into voting against the union. College administrators continue to respond that a total neutrality agreement would violate the institution’s principles of free speech and eliminate the opportunity to respond to any misinformation or questions about issues related to unionization.
The letter Choy was referring to was, in fact, a Jan. 24 e-mail from Sisson responding to the workers’ request for an extended period of total neutrality. In the e-mail, Sisson reiterated that the college’s position on neutrality has not changed since earlier negotiations in April 2011.
The e-mail also addressed allegations made against dining services management accusing individual managers, including General Manager of Pomona Dining Services Glenn Graziano, of holding one-on-one meetings in which workers who supported unionization felt intimidated.
“Regarding the question of neutrality,” the e-mail said, “the College’s June 2011 offer to Workers for Justice specified that there would be no one-on-one meetings with employees for the purpose of discussing unionization. The College also proposed total neutrality during the collection of cards to reach 30% of workers and the filing of an NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] petition. The College also proposed total neutrality for 24-48 hours prior to an election. The College’s position has not changed.”
Former Frary cook Christian Torres said that the last alleged meeting of that nature occurred in March 2011, when, according to Torres, Graziano held a meeting with him ostensibly to discuss his schedule but spent the meeting instead talking about myths regarding the benefits of unions.
Torres added that since the college responded to this allegation and WFJ’s initial request for total neutrality in 2011, he has not heard of other instances of such meetings occurring.
The e-mail also mentions the card check election process, which WFJ was, for a time, demanding instead of a secret ballot election, the process favored by the college. Torres clarified Sunday that WFJ had agreed to a secret ballot election in 2011 and at the panel.
In April 2011, WFJ was willing to adopt the secret ballot election only if the college agreed to their terms of total neutrality. As of yet, the college still has not agreed to a period of neutrality longer than 48 hours, so it is unclear if WFJ will ultimately concede their original demand for a card check vote.