In the last six years, there have been many upheavals in the Pomona College dining halls. Despite a drawn-out unionization battle ending in a successful union vote in April 2013, tensions between management and workers remain high.
A few weeks ago, a cook opened the fridge in Frary dining hall to find a sheet rack full of rotting chicken. A disagreement between the bargaining unit workers and Chef Manager Travis Ellis ensued over whether or not to use the chicken.
“I thought there was a dead rat as soon as I opened the door to the fridge. There were three boxes of chicken that were really stinky,” said a Pomona cook who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from management.
Union Shop Steward and Lead Cook Edward Mac, who has worked at Pomona since 2012, reported the incident to Ellis.
“I went into the office, and I told them that I respectfully decline to serve this chicken. It is not safe for consumption,” Mac said. “Call whomever it is that you need to call because serving this chicken to the students is not acceptable.”
Patricia Weaver, general manager of Frary, said, “There was a difference in opinion on the chicken: whether it had come to the point of spoiled or whether it just smelled bad. The chefs thought it was still good, but the cooks disagreed. The cooks called the operations manager, Andrew Sutton. He heard both sides and made the decision to toss it.”
Ellis concurred with Weaver in an email to TSL.
“I am glad that the administration has procedures in place that allow the staff and management to feel they have a voice when it comes to the integrity of the food and the safety of the students,” Ellis wrote.
Weaver credited new procedures she helped put in place with allowing workers to have a straightforward chain of command.
“Before, I don’t know if the cooks had a voice. Now, we want to make sure that there is respect across the board,” Weaver said.
Calls for respect and dignity for dining hall workers have a long history at Pomona. Much of the lack of trust stems from the college’s firing of 17 dining hall workers in December 2011 for not having proper work authorization documents, according to some dining hall employees.
“Everybody in our union organizing committee got fired except me,” said long-term Frary cook Rolando Araiza. “There were a lot of hardships at our workplace.”
Pomona history professor Victor Silverman said that tactics such as these are often used by institutions when trying to avoid unionization.
“People were so angry and felt so betrayed,” said Silverman. “The school claimed they were under legal compulsion, which I don’t think was really true. I think it was a political decision, but they went ahead with it.”
Weaver said that she remembers “feeling a real sense of despair and sadness” when first interviewed for a job at Pomona.
“I think the mistrust is residual from what happened three years ago,” Weaver said. “I don’t want to ignore the past, but I want to move forward. We cannot grow if we are fighting a battle every day.”
This growth has yet to occur, according to some dining hall workers. They described tactics of fear and intimidation used in retaliation to their utilization of the reporting system.
“They have been using a lot of retaliation in the last couple of weeks. If you complain about something, it comes back to you,” said a second Frary cook who also requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from management.
According to Mac, much of the tension stems from management’s disregard of the union contract settled with the school in December 2014.
The Frary cook who initially found the chicken questioned the administration’s adherence to the contract in a meeting with the administration after the incident.
“I asked Patti, ‘Do you even read the contract? If you don’t want us to get pissed off at you, then you need to follow the contract, especially the people that fought for the contact,’” he said of Weaver.
“I see it all the time: these people don’t give a fuck about the contract,” the cook said. “When you say you don’t give a fuck about the contract, you don’t give a fuck about the union, and you don’t give a fuck about us. We are the union.”
Weaver believes the contract helps somewhat but that the current management system relies upon reforms she enacted about a year ago when she first began working at Pomona.
“I think the union has a basic contract that lays out certain labor codes we should follow, but when it comes to kitchen practices, those are not really labeled in the contract,” said Weaver. “We put together procedure that protects everyone, whether it is attendance, chain of command, or letting everyone now there is another voice out there for them. I don’t want anyone to feel that they are under the thumb of the manager.”
Dining hall workers argue the issues run deeper.
“The problem I have is that they say they need to hire more people. We are understaffed. It says in our contract we are not supposed to have temps, only when necessary. In the past two years, we have more temps in the kitchen than the people who are employed, which is a complete violation of the fucking contract,” said the anonymous cook who found the chicken.
“Then, they say their hands are tied because of the trustees, because they have a specific budget. But we hired seven new managers,” he said.
“They open like three new buildings, I hope those buildings didn’t cost thirty thousand dollars, because there goes my utility co-workers,” said a third cook.
Araiza argues the managers were only hired to suppress the union.
“They got them because they want to keep eyes on us,” he said.
Robert Robinson, assistant vice president of facilities and campus services at Pomona, contradicted the cook’s assertions.
“The number of temps utilized probably has a proportional relationship to the number of call-offs. I do not know the number,” he said. “As for our managers, that number has remained static over several years. We have hired approximately seven new staff members.”
Weaver maintains the dining halls do not have staffing issues.
“We are appropriately staffed. We have issues when we have a lot of call-outs,” she said.
“For the month of March, not including vacation or scheduled days off, I had 42 different occasions of people who called in the day of or come in and said they were leaving early or came in late. In this industry it is almost impossible, if I get a call at 5 am to cover a 6:30am shift. We do our best. We are negotiating with the union now to try to figure out a better solution,” she said.
Currently, the union contract is in renegotiation. The administration asserts that negotiations are going very well.
A union representative from the dining hall workers’ union, UNITE HERE local 11, who also wished to remain anonymous, says contract renegotiation is critical to fixing management and worker relations in the dining halls. She believes that without the union, the chicken could easily have been served.
“Having a contract allows workers to feel more comfortable expressing themselves when there is a contract violation, when there is disrespect,” she said. “But nothing is ever perfect. There is still a long way to go so that it isn’t management against workers. Sometimes, it still feels that way. The hope is that management learns the contract and respects it.”
Weaver remains hopeful about the changes she has put in place and the future of the dining hall work environment.
“We do things that they have never done in the past. We try to acknowledge them. They seem like baby steps, but they are step we are taking to show them they matter to us,” she said.
Belmont Pinger PZ '17 contributed reporting.