The pro-union group of Pomona College dining hall workers, Workers For Justice (WFJ), filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the summer, claiming the school is implementing an anti-union campaign. These charges come at a time when negotiations between Pomona and WFJ are stalled over the issue of neutrality before a union election.
The conflict over unionization emerged on Pomona’s campus in March 2010 when pro-union dining hall workers protested at Frank and Frary dining halls, calling for a fair process of unionization. Since that time, WFJ and the administration have agreed to hold a secret ballot vote, but workers have refused to move forward until the college agrees to complete neutrality, which would restrict all school administrators and managers from discussing unionization in the workplace.
On Aug. 3, representatives from WFJ delivered charges to Pomona College during a protest outside Alexander Hall, accusing the college of violating the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). These accusations revolved around the termination of a member of the WFJ negotiating committee, as well as a list of guidelines distributed to cashiers over the summer regarding worker interaction with non-employees and students.
WFJ claims that Francisco Garcia, a long-time Dining Services employee who was on disability leave, was fired because of his involvement with the negotiating committee that met with school administrators over the summer. WFJ also contests that the recently-distributed guidelines prevent workers from talking with students during their shifts. The NLRB will investigate the charges and decide whether or not the complaints are justified. Typically, the NLRB reaches a decision within thirty days.
Garcia, who had worked for Dining Services for 16 years, was on disability leave for a year before he was terminated. If the charges against the school are proved true, this would be in violation of the NLRA, which prevents employers from discriminating against employees involved in union activities.
In an email sent out two days after the protest, Pomona Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson denied WFJ’s claims that Garcia was terminated because of his role in WFJ.
“I want to make clear that Pomona College has never terminated any employee for activities related to unionization,” Sisson wrote. “We expect all of our employees to comport themselves according to Pomona’s employment policies and procedures, which we apply uniformly throughout the College.”
WFJ leader Christian Torres, another Dining Services employee and member of the negotiating committee, said that Garcia was pulled away from negotiations and told he couldn’t be there.
“[Sisson] come to the table and came to Francisco, and they went out and started talking,” Torres said. “After that, he told us that [Sisson] told him he can’t be in the negotiation room at the college because he has a case of disability.”
According to Pomona’s Office of Human Resources, employees who come to campus while on disability leave may be violating their doctors’ orders.
“If a doctor places an employee completely off of work, the employee is not to be on campus for any work-related function or work-related reason because to do so would violate doctors’ orders,” wrote Assistant Vice-President of Human Resources Brenda Rushforth in an email to The Student Life.
According to the college’s September 2011 version of its Handbook for the Staff, employees must provide a doctor’s note before returning to work, or forfeit their job.
“Prior to returning to work, the employee must provide the CUC Disability Office and Human Resources with a signed note from her/his medical provider indicating that the employee is cleared to return to work. An employee who does not so return with such note will be considered to have voluntarily resigned and will be terminated from employment, unless otherwise prohibited by applicable law,” the handbook states.
WFJ also referenced recently-distributed Dining Services guidelines to cashiers dealing with non-employees, claiming the guidelines don’t allow employees to talk with students. The NLRA prevents employers from interfering with the formation of a labor organization.
The controversial section of the instructions reads that “non-employees may not interrupt nor visit with employees while they are working.”
Torres says the instructions go too far.
“It’s forbidding us to talk to anybody who is a non-employee,” he argued. “I think they wanted to cut communication between workers and the students. They only made this policy to dining workers,” he said.
In a letter handed out to faculty on Sept. 2, WFJ wrote that “management implemented a new policy that employees are not allowed to speak about the union with student and alumni supporters. Managers have repeatedly threatened dining hall workers who continue to speak to students, and for the first time managers have called campus security and threatened to remove from the dining halls students and alumni who support workers’ demands for a democratic process.”
Sisson said that the school was not trying to curtail student and staff interaction, but instead just trying to make sure employees are not prevented from doing their jobs.
“Generally, interaction between students and staff is encouraged,” Sisson said. “We ask only that students understand that employees have jobs to do–they are working! We also ask that they honor restrictions on entering the kitchen area to make sure we are in conformity with health code regulations.”
The instructions were distributed on slips of paper to cashiers over the summer after some cashiers asked for guidance on interacting with non-employees, Sisson added.
“We had two incidents where non-employees and non-students tried to enter the dining halls during a mealtime without paying,” Sisson said. “They also did not have any form of Pomona ID. One of them went directly into the kitchen which is a violation of the county health code. Another became agitated and ran through Frank Dining Hall causing some conference attendees to be a bit alarmed.”
Torres also filed a second unfair labor practice charge against the college last week, claiming he was applying for a promotion when he was asked to remove a pro-WFJ button from his shirt.