In what constituted a major change in the movement’s demands for a process of unionization, Workers For Justice filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday to hold elections for a union before the semester ends, deciding to move forward even if the administration does not agree to full neutrality. A group of students and workers marched to Alexander Hall Wednesday morning to present Pomona College President David Oxtoby with a petition asking the administration not to delay the vote and to commit to full neutrality during the elections.
According to UNITE HERE union organizer Robin Rodriguez, the workers are “at a point where they feel stronger than ever; they feel like they’re ready.”
If the college does not delay, she said, the vote will happen before the end of the semester.
“It’s been too long for the whole campus—not for just the workers but for everybody,” Rodriguez said.
Oxtoby was not in his office to receive the petition personally, so the workers delivered it to Theresa Shaw, Special Assistant to the President.
“It is a significant step,” she said of the decision to file for an election.
Oxtoby agreed, saying, “I’m just glad this is moving forward; this is what we’ve been asking for for three years. If you want to have a vote, we welcome it.”
The workers have not given up on their demands for full neutrality in spite of the decision to file for a vote.
“I know we’re going to win here,” said Rolando Araiza, a chef at Frary Dining Hall who has been one of the leaders of the unionization effort. “We are going to enforce our own neutrality; we’re not scared.”
According to WFJ representatives, it remained unclear after the announcement whether the college was likely to change its position on full neutrality or even observe the proposal for limited neutrality that the college drafted in June 2011, since neither neutrality agreement was ever officially accepted by both parties.
“The College intends to fully respect the NLRB election process and work with the NLRB to hold an election in a timely manner,” Pomona Director of Communications Cynthia Peters wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Because the  proposal reflected the College’s principles, there are no plans to act any differently.”
“We feel hope, we feel strong to bring the campaign to its conclusion this semester,” Rodriguez said.
Edward Mac, another dining hall worker, agreed.
“We have decided to put the past behind us,” he said, referring to the 16 dining hall workers who were fired in December 2011, an event that caused controversy among students, faculty, and workers alike. “It’s been dragging for three years now, and we don’t want to drag another year.”
According to Mac, the advantage of being part of a union would be the presence of a dedicated union steward who would advocate for the members of the union and help enforce the contract between Pomona and its workers.
“We are ‘at-will’ employees, and we can be fired for any reason or no reason at all,” Mac said. “That’s one thing that we’re asking for [in voting to unionize], to have some job stability.”
At the rally, both students and workers spoke about feeling silenced in the dining halls, particularly by managers.
Crystal Flores, one of the dining hall workers who spoke at the rally, said, “We don’t feel like we have a voice [on campus.]”
“Because we are speaking up for ourselves, because we want something better, there’s retaliation,” Flores said. “It might be in small ways, but it’s there. And if we feel it, that should be a valid enough reason for us to say that it needs to stop.”
Jeremie Robins PO ’15 agreed, saying that he does not want to be part of a community “where half of us are silenced or invisible.”
“President Oxtoby’s not in [the dining hall] there with us, so he can say whatever he wants,” said Flores. “But his managers are intimidating us.”
Oxtoby agreed that the situation in the dining halls is not ideal.
“I really worry about the dining halls,” he said.
Oxtoby said that union organizers are also intimidating the dining hall employees, citing reports from dining hall workers who have felt intimidated by union organizers approaching them while they walked to their cars.
“It’s an unfortunate atmosphere where everyone feels the pressure,” he said. “We just want to get the election done as quickly as we can so we can move on.”
Although the workers will still fight for full neutrality, Oxtoby did not offer any further space on what the college has offered already. According to Oxtoby, the college’s policy will allow staff members to ask managers questions about unionization, while full neutrality would require that managers not talk about the unionization process at all.
“We said from the beginning that we’re not going to have one-on-one meetings,” Oxtoby said.
He added that the administration will not “tell the workers what they should do. We’re not going to hire union busters.”
Other colleges besides Pomona were represented in the crowd on Wednesday that marched from Frary to Alexander to present the petition and concluded with a press conference.
Katie Robinson PZ ’14 said that the movement was important to her in spite of her college affiliation.
“I’ve eaten at Frary Dining Hall and at Frank Dining Hall, and we’re associated with Pomona as an institution,” she said. “Maybe I’m not a worker, but I’m showing solidarity, and that’s how these movements work.”
“Pomona has put the workers through a lot,” Araiza said in a speech to the crowd.
He said the workers were ready to “really show them what a community is about.”
“We feel like we have solidarity with our workers,” Flores said. “It’s not just one or two that want this; there’s a lot of us, and we want it to be over. We want it to end peacefully. We’re just asking for justice.”