Looking Back on Dining Hall Worker Unionization

Contrary to what some might assume, students did not just begin thinking about dining hall workers’ rights in 2010. In fact, students at the Claremont Colleges have worked to help unionization efforts by campus workers since 1999.

With Pomona College dining hall workers’ union contract currently up for renegotiation, TSL is looking back on union negotiations from 1999 to 2010. Next week, we will cover 2010 to present day.

In late May 2000, all five colleges employed ARAMARK in their dining halls, the second-largest food operation company in the country. According to TSL archives, the months leading up to the contract termination were marked by student protests and worker organizing. At one point, students chained themselves outside the doors of Pomona's Alexander Hall for two days, advocating for unionization and protesting working conditions in the dining halls.

“The colleges operated under one contract for food service, ARAMARK; then there were some issues, and the colleges decided to go their own way,” said Robert Robinson, Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services at Pomona.

Pomona history professor Victor Silverman, who writes and teaches about Pomona’s unionization history, said that “the issues were very much the same all along.”

“The issues were the workload, low pay, bad management practices, and lack of respect in the workplace. That is why people started organizing back then. There were occupations and a lot of student activism at the time,” he said.

Pomona terminated its ARAMARK contract in late May 2000, citing health concerns and workers' issues. According to Robinson, the college then hired all of Pomona’s dining hall workers as Pomona employees and contracted out management with another dining service, Sodexo.

“The colleges did not want a big labor explosion here, so they broke up the union,” Silverman said. “The administrations started to see that unionization was coming, so they decided to take over the dining halls themselves. Instead of the union having to organize one shop, they had to now organize on five [campuses].”

According to Caroline Bourscheid PZ '16, co-founder of Claremont Student Workers Alliance, Pitzer students occupied the dining hall and the president's building in the early 2000s in conjunction with a unionizing campaign at Pitzer's dining hall. When Pitzer’s dining hall union contract was up for renegotiation, the workers voted not to renew the contract.

“The union failed to service the shop. After a few years they had a decertification vote and voted out the union,” Silverman said. “The union strategy was not to organize out here in the Inland Empire. It was not to organize at small colleges like this. Unions have very limited resources, they design their campaigns very carefully because they cannot just be everywhere all at once. They chose not to really be here, and that was a serious mistake on the union's part to loose that shop.”

Rolando Araiza, who started working at Pomona's Frary dining hall in 2006 when he was just sixteen years old, has his own views on why the Pitzer union failed.

“They didn’t have a committee to organize the workers and keep it organized. They didn’t go through a fight,” he said. “It is different when you fight for your contract, but you get it very easy. The organization kind of disappeared.”

After the failure of Pitzer workers to unionize, organizing efforts picked up again at Pomona. According to Robinson, the current iteration of the unionization movement began in 2004. As we will discuss next week, the unionization effort was not resolved until May 2013 when the workers voted 57-26 in favor of unionizing with UNITE-HERE Local 11.

When asked why the process took so long, Robinson responded, “If there is a fair and democratic vote amongst all of the workers, a secret ballot vote, we had no problem with the unions. Our only requirement, if you want to even call it that, was that the workers had a vote free from intimidation.”

Negotiations between pro-union dining hall workers and college administrators moving towards a vote continued slowly as disagreements arose over the specifics of voting methods. The workers wanted a card check election, but the school insisted upon having a secret-ballot elections run by the National Labor Relations Board.

Pomona President David Oxtoby said that the school was not in favor of a card-check election, according to a Mar. 3, 2010 TSL article. 

“We support the basic principle of secret-ballot voting processes,” he said. “The card-check process is not that type of process.”

“Employees everywhere all over the country made that exact same argument, that card check was undemocratic somehow, that somehow signing a petition is undemocratic, whereas clicking a box on an election form is more democratic,” Silverman stated. “They are both democratic.”

Araiza said that when the workers realized that Pomona would not go with a card-check election, they began “negotiating what the secret ballot was going to look like.”

“We wanted protection and they didn’t want to give it to us, and it prolonged,” Araiza said. “That is what they do, like we are going to have a meeting next month, and then two months later we are going to have another meeting. It took a long time.”

In November 2010, in the midst of the organizing effort, Pomona College ended its contract with Sodexo and announced it would make dining halls self-operated, citing Sodexo’s poor performance and the need for more flexibility in management and food options.  

Araiza recalls that the school made changes when they became self-operated. 

“I remember we had this meeting because we were complaining and had rallies about changes about what we wanted to see. In this meeting, they told us that we were all going to be 12-month employees, that they were going to lower insurance costs, and work on the respect and dignity,” Araiza said.

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