Pomona College began checking the work authorization documents of 84 of its employees, provoking widespread outrage from many students, professors, and staff members. Supporters of Workers for Justice (WFJ), the pro-union group of Pomona dining hall staff, began demonstrating before dawn on Tuesday in opposition to what they saw as a campaign of intimidation, while college administrators insisted that the document-verification process was legally required because of an external audit that is unrelated to unionization.
The group of Pomona employees whose documentation has been questioned includes faculty, staff, and students who work for the college part-time. In a letter distributed to staff members by hand on Monday, these employees were asked to meet with the Office of Human Resources by the end of the week, and they have until Dec. 1 to turn in any missing documents that might be necessary to prove that they are legally employed. The college has hired lawyers to provide legal advice to employees who request it, but employees are not allowed to bring lawyers with them to the meetings where documentation will be discussed.
“We are hopeful that all affected employees will be able to update their files to correct these deficiencies,” Pomona President David Oxtoby wrote in an e-mail to The Student Life. “However, in the end, if an employee is unable to provide the documentation that is required by federal law, he or she will no longer be eligible to work.”
“I would like to make very clear, however, that in the case of the affected students, this involves only a re-verification of their legal work authorization,” he added. “It in no way involves their status as Pomona College students.”
Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, who teaches Latin American History and Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Pomona, said that the process of checking documentation could have a strong negative effect on the entire Pomona community.
“I think it calls into question our legitimacy on this campus for many people who may have an immigrant background, particularly in light of a college policy enunciated two years ago during graduation in which it was publicly stated by President Oxtoby that the college will welcome anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or immigrant status,” he said.
Meanwhile, members and supporters of WFJ have said that they perceive the document-checking process as part of a campaign to suppress their ongoing unionization effort.
“I think it’s wrong because of the period of time that we’re in,” said Rolando Araiza, a chef at Frary dining hall. “We’re fighting for a union, and this kind of thing happens. I think it’s just a way for them to intimidate us, and that’s wrong. The college said they weren’t going to do that type of stuff and I’m tired of feeling intimidated at work.”
In an e-mail to the Pomona community on Tuesday, Oxtoby wrote that the college had hired an auditing firm to examine the records of every Pomona employee earlier this year, after the Board of Trustees received an allegation that the college was hiring employees without verifying their work authorization documents. The auditors found no pattern of illegal hiring practices at Pomona, but they did produce a list of employees whose documentation might be deficient, Oxtoby wrote.
Now, Pomona administrators say that it would be illegal if the college failed to verify the authorization of those employees whose documents were questioned. In separate e-mails to TSL, Oxtoby and Director of Media Relations Cynthia Peters referred to “federal law” as the source of this requirement to investigate. They did not identify a statute or prior ruling that put this requirement in place.
“The administration has not told us enough, so we’re all left in the dark under the guise of confidentiality, and I think that’s unacceptable,” said Will Mullaney PO ’12, a supporter of WFJ. “If they are legally obligated to conduct the investigation into the 84 people without documents, they should have told everyone in the 5C community and beyond what law forces them to do that.”
Despite widespread speculation about the identity and motivations of the person who presented the initial allegation to the Board of Trustees, the Pomona administration has not made the complaint public or released the complainant’s name.
“I can tell you that the person who made the allegations is an employee of the college but not a member of the administration,” Oxtoby wrote to TSL. “However, that’s really as far as I can go.”
Tinker Salas said that he had asked an administrator for a copy of the original complaint, but his request was denied.
“Transparency in all these matters would go a long way towards alleviating some of these concerns,” Tinker Salas said. He added that he had voiced some of his own worries to Oxtoby in a meeting on Monday morning, when he and a small group of other professors were invited to learn about the document-verification process.
“There were different levels of concern expressed, from the issue of immigration, from the issue of union organizing, from the fairness and from the equity issue, and from the concern over racial climate,” he said of the meeting. “Those were all issues that I expressed.”
Gilda Ochoa, Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies, had also attended the meeting with Oxtoby on Monday.
“I just remember I felt sick,” she said of her reaction to learning about the document-checking process. “It was very disconcerting.”
“Whether or not the Board of Trustees realized the ramifications of this current practice, the reality is, it’s really caused a lot of unease [and] stress for various people—not only the people that received letters, but the larger community,” she added.
Politics Professor David Menefee-Libey agreed that the document check could be a detriment to the community that Pomona fosters.
“It makes people suspicious of one another. It makes it more difficult for us to live with each other in trust,” he said. “People are going to view this from their own experience and their own perspective, and whether they’re faculty or staff or students… everyone is left to just speculate from their own point of view about what’s going on.”
Menefee-Libey added that he was not surprised by the forceful and immediate response from pro-union activists who interpreted the document check as a crackdown on organized labor.
“I don’t think that that’s what’s going on here, but I understand the concerns of people who are working with the unionization campaign,” he said.
Whether or not the administration intended to squelch the union, Ochoa said, the process of checking documents is likely to have a chilling effect on unionization.
“We don’t know intention, but we can look historically about various union-busting tactics, and this is precisely one of those tactics,” she said. “Because of that, it does foster intimidation [and] fear among union people.”
José Calderón, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pitzer College, agreed that there is a historical association between anti-union campaigns and document-checking procedures.
“It isn’t a time when this appears to happen randomly,” he said. “The students and the workers who have been out there have a legitimate concern to protest and a legitimate reason to raise questions.”
Christian Torres, a chef at Frary, speculated that the administration’s motive for investigating documents might have to do with the recent collaborative organizing by WFJ and UNITE HERE, a nationwide union.
“UNITE HERE and Workers for Justice are working together,” Torres said. “That’s why they come to our events, they sponsor our events, and this is why the administration is doing these things. They know that Workers for Justice is not alone anymore.”
Emmanuel Rodriguez, a member of the Loyola Marymount University (LMU) dining services union that recently formed under the UNITE HERE banner, came to Claremont with a group of his co-workers to participate in the WFJ rally at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
“A union is nothing but a big old family,” he said. “So when one of our family has fallen, we are there. That’s the reason why we’re here.”
WFJ is holding a vigil in opposition to the document check today at 3 p.m. outside Pomona’s Alexander Hall. A group of professors and students will host a discussion of the issue on Monday in connection with a 4 p.m. screening of the PBS documentary Lost in Detention.
Maya Booth and John Thomason contributed reporting to this article.