If the debate over dining hall worker unionization is to result in any tangible progress, parties on both sides of the issue need to drop vague rhetoric and move toward concrete action. Rather than talking through blog posts and cc’d emails, the parties must come together at some point to make their motives and goals clear, and, if possible, work toward an agreement that is amenable to all. After speaking to leaders on both sides of the issue this week, this Editorial Board believes that such an agreement is possible.
This week, the Ed Board spoke to President Oxtoby and worker representatives of Workers for Justice in order to get a more comprehensive picture of the issues. We found that the goals of both parties—at least in the short term—are not all that different. President Oxtoby said he is willing to sit down with workers in good faith to hear their views and grievances and to flesh out the administration’s view on unionization plans, as well as to discuss the pros and cons of the NLRB and card-check processes. He said he is open to new arguments for card-check, though his current stance opposes it in favor of NLRB. The workers that we spoke to said they would be happy to sit down with Oxtoby to discuss the current situation, and to get more information on unions and on Oxtoby’s position to guide their decision; they also said they are worried that if the administration were to bring in labor experts, they would present propaganda instead of honest arguments.
TSL proposes that a third party—trusted by both workers and the administration—step in to bridge the divide by organizing a forum between senior administration, workers, and labor specialists on both sides of the issue. The workers we spoke with like the idea behind the forum the politics department is organizing, because it will include professors, students, workers, administrators, and outside experts. We recommend a forum of this kind. This is not to say that a meeting will automatically resolve disagreements between the parties.
President Oxtoby said one of his frustrations with the Workers for Justice movement is its lack of specific demands. While the workers say that a union is the only way to stop intimidation by management and create a basis for collective bargaining, the administration said the information it has received from the workers’ group is amorphous and often details grievances from years in the past. Oxtoby was confident that senior personnel changes within the past few years have gone a long way in addressing worker concerns—and the workers we spoke to, for the most part, agreed. Workers still say, however, that problem persists with lower-level management, whose mistreatment of staff is rarely reported to Alexander Hall. Workers want respect first and foremost. Workers want to be free from intimidation and abuse, and the administration does not want to see its employees intimidated or abused—but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It is obvious then that there is a break in the chain of communication between workers and senior personnel—the system of reporting worker mistreatment is broken. A union may be one way to address this issue, but it is not the only one. The approach to these issues should also be addressed during a meeting between Oxtoby and dining hall staff.
Oxtoby also said that the lack of a clear leadership structure among workers has made dealing with their demands in any tangible way difficult, and we see his point. While we understand that workers want to structure the unionization effort as an egalitarian body with power distributed equally among all members, workers must create some kind of leadership structure to relay their concerns to the administration. The current lack of leadership has given the administration and a portion of the student body the misconception that vocal students—not the workers themselves—are behind the unionization effort.
So where do students fit into all of this? While Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice has done an excellent job of bringing workers’ rights issues to the fore, workers must be leading the charge when it comes to dealing with the administration. Oxtoby is concerned that the over-involvement of student groups with the unionization effort will leave workers without guidance once the current students leaders graduate. He is also concerned that passionate students may end up having too much of a hand in shaping union policy—something he says the workers should be deciding for themselves. While we disagree with Oxtoby’s characterization of Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice, we understand his concern. It is time for students—inside and outside of the unionization effort—to take a backseat to worker leadership in both the public discourse and private deliberations. We are all for students speaking out in support of the staff’s decisions, but we would like to hear what those decisions are directly from staff.
TSL believes that there is now a great opportunity to use the energy from Saturday’s rally and Oxtoby’s invitation to speak directly with staff to start real movement on this issue. Students have the power to facilitate these conversations between the staff and administration. While it is important for the Pomona College community at large to learn about unionization and the options on the table, the college and the workers will ultimately make the decisions.