The Workers’ Support Committee (WSC) is a group of students that came together both to provide support to give workers a more prominent voice on campus, and to create better relations between students, staff, and faculty.
The organization gradually coalesced as a group in part as a result of tenuous staff relations in the early 1990s. Due to the 2008 Stand With Staff (SWS) Campaign, the group has recently increased its numbers to around 25 members and has gained consistent access to the administration through lobbying.The students’ advocacy for awareness of staff issues has been an ongoing project.
According to WSC member Nicholas Gerber PO ’10, students have struggled to improve labor conditions at Pomona since the early 1990s. At that time, these struggles appeared largely in response to the Report of the President’s “Task Force on Harassment,” part of which detailed a number of instances of harassment of staff in the workplace, both by students and supervisors. The report, which described staff as feeling “powerless,” “overlooked,” and “excluded,” served as a springboard for student movements and organizations. An official “Workers Support Committee” first appeared in
The Student Life
headlines in the late 1990s and early 2000s, during Pomona’s deliberations with Aramark, a company Pomona previously contracted with for dining hall services. The company came under fire for complaints about sanitation and abusive labor practices.
The WSC (at this point a 5-C organization, but composed primarily of Pomona and Pitzer students) attempted to help dining hall workers, at the time still employed by Aramark, to unionize. Protests culminated in a takeover of Alexander Hall on May 2, 2000, with students demanding changes in policy. Ultimately, Aramark was not re-contracted for food services. After the controversy, Pomona College changed its policy, and agreed to hire dining hall staff independent of food service providers.
According to an article appearing in
The Student Life
on Sep. 22, 2000, “In a move seemingly designed to address student concerns, Pomona College has hired the food service workers as its employees, with the food service contractors serving in managerial roles.”
Furthermore, according to Gerber, then-president Peter Stanley “agreed to a signed document that got sent out to the whole school that said they would basically have a unionization process that would be open and fair.”
Pitzer dining hall staff unionized soon after in March 2001. A vote at Pomona failed to produce similar results.
According to Gerber, after the union vote, the WSC virtually dissolved, and remained more or less defunct until 2003.
Since 2003, WSC has inserted itself into the discussion of a number of issues to support the staff’s ability to have a “more equal” voice in campus affairs.
According to an April 2006
article, housekeeper Esmeralda Polanco was “fired in January on the grounds that she did not notify her superior on days that she missed work and did not attend a mandatory training session.” Polanco entered into the appeals process, claiming a misunderstanding had taken place. After Polanco was denied reinstatement, WSC organized a petition that obtained over 700 signatures urging a meeting between President David Oxtoby and Polanco to consider changing the decision. Ultimately, Polanco was reinstated.
More recently, WSC has supported a number of causes that they feel will better address staff-student-faculty relations on campus. An October 2008 profile on the committee in TSL expressed their wish for an ombudsperson, a student-staff language tutoring program, and an institutionalized venue to provide more contact between students and staff through RHS, sponsor groups, and meal programs at the dining halls. WSC has also arranged a weekly Friday breakfast with the workers to facilitate student-staff interactions.
Recent concerns addressed by the WSC center on rectifying historic instances of favoritism, unequal allotment, overtime hours, and intimidation.
Stand with Staff, a group separate from, but supported by the WSC, formed in Spring 2008 to support staff during the budget cuts, and ensure that they had a voice in the discussions. In addition to flyering the campus, the group organized an online petition calling on the college to avoid laying off employees, and to hire all on-call workers and keep current salary rates. The petition garnered over 900 signatures, including those of 548 Pomona students.
Last semester, the group organized a boycott of the Pomona dining halls.“What happened with SWS was that we had this boycott of the dining halls and then 40 dining hall staff went and met with human resources to go talk about what they were worried about which was that they were not going to get summer hours and they were going to get their summer holidays cut,” said WSC member Katie Duberg PO ’10.
This semester, SWS has attacked the net reduction in the total labor pool as “unsafe” and “exploitative.” They want to ensure that the staff feels safe in voicing concerns about their work environment, and that the concerns are well received.
“We’ve heard from a lot of folks that were experiencing a lot more work,” said Gerber, “And we felt like what we’d been hearing was warranted of public response and tried to make it a public issue and get some sort of answer as to what was going on … we wanted to create awareness and get people talking.”
When asked to clarify the intent of the language used by the SWS Campaign, Gerber said, “I have definitely heard a lot of conversations about the language we use, and I think our position is that it is exploitative in the sense that changes are made that have [a] big impact on the staff, but they don’t have the power to try to change it, or have the power to be there when the decision was made, and say ‘wait.’”
In the past, student organizations have lobbied on workers’ behalf, addressing individual problems brought to their attention by the staff members. They would act as a type of “go-between,” as advocates for the staff to human resources or the vice president.
Today, these organizations have change their tactics, using broad-based student support to present solidarity with the staff. Duberg said the group shifted its focus to reflect a concern that “They didn’t want to become a representative group for the staff, when the staff should have their own power to do so.”Vice President of the College Karen Sisson said the triangular relationships between students, staff, and administrators may have come to present an obstacle to the staff’s communication with their supervisors.
“One of the things that’s happened over time – and I wasn’t here, so I’m not making any judgments – but somehow institutionally, the dynamic developed that workers went to WSC instead of coming to management,” Sisson said.
Wary of creating too many layers of separation between the staff and the administration, the WSC has shifted its focus.
Gerber said, “Rather than engage in that kind of more individual advocacy kind of relationships we decided okay we’d rather kind of talk with a lot of other students, organize other students and let them know about these concerns and get them out publicly saying that as students at their college we think this is an important issue or that this should be addressed.”
In cooperation with WSC, SWS held a rally outside of the Student-Trustee retreat on Friday, Oct. 2, to voice student concerns. The group estimated a showing of over 200 supportive students.The bottom line, according to Gerber, is that staff is still not accorded the same level of importance in the Pomona College community as the students or the faculty.
“The fact remains that staff don’t have near at all this same kind of power that the rest of the community have,” said Gerber, “so if we have this high notion of community that we are actually going to continue to espouse and try to realize, then we need to say what are we going to do to rectify the fact that this large part of our community is not equal.”