Acknowledging the Link between Sodexo and WFJ

According to Pomona administration, labor issues were not the driving force in the decision to terminate Sodexo’s contract. Instead, operational factors (e.g. quality of food, cleanliness, responsiveness to management) played a much larger role. We have no reason to doubt the administration’s official statement: the decision is the result of a two-year review process that began in July 2009, over eight months before workers publicly expressed their desire to form a union. As for the timing of the seemingly sudden decision, the administration’s explanation is a logical and reasonable one. With dining halls closed, winter break is the “easiest time operationally” to reorganize with new management; that convenience is the only reason to terminate the contract early. In this context, President Oxtoby’s statement that “the decision is unconnected to the unionization issues” is entirely valid.

Yet anybody remotely familiar with Pomona’s history of dining services cannot help but get the sense that history is repeating itself. As TSL reported last week, the last time such a major management change was made was in 2000, when the 5Cs decided to replace the food service provider ARAMARK with Sodexo and Pomona hired all dining hall staff as employees of the college. This was also the last time Pomona’s dining hall workers, then ARAMARK employees, publicly pushed for a vote on unionization. After the change in their employment status, workers were given a confidential survey administered by the college on whether they wanted to be Pomona employees with or without a union, in which the majority sided against unionizing 45-11.

The extent to which that management change affected the survey results is anybody’s guess. But this is a side argument to the main one: the events 10 years ago reveal startling parallels to the present-day situation. Even if the parallels are a coincidence, they cannot simply be ignored.

The administration has the responsibility not only to acknowledge but to address the speculations that have been raised over the connection between the termination of Sodexo’s contract and the unionization efforts. They owe this to students, faculty, and most of all, to the dining hall staff.

While workers’ reactions have been anything but unified—some were sad to see the management leave, others happy and hopeful—almost all were shocked by the news. Several of the workers who were interviewed expressed skepticism that the administration’s decision was not a response to Workers for Justice (WFJ). One speculated that the move was done to “monitor” or have “more control” over the workers; another felt that it was a strategic tactic to set back unionization efforts. While nobody interviewed felt that the move changed their opinions about unionization, one observed that several workers took off their WFJ pins directly after the announcement. Another stated that some workers seemed afraid that they would lose their jobs, though he wasn’t sure why.

Perhaps the administration feels that an acknowledgement of this coincidence is unnecessary because they view the basis of the unionization efforts as unfounded. Bob Robinson, Director of Facilities and Campus Services, stated in an interview that: (i) there was no need for a union, (ii) most worker complaints are based on events that occurred 10 or 15 years ago, and (iii) guaranteed 12-month employment is the only WFJ demand that the administration has not met. Perhaps the administration feels that, as I’m sure many students do, the WFJ movement is not representative of the dining hall staff as a whole but rather the product of a select number of vocal workers with strong student involvement. If this is true, it could logically follow that there is less of a need to include WFJ’s unionization efforts in the dialogue about Sodexo.

However, the fact remains that until Nov. 10—the day of the e-mail announcement—WFJ and their unionization efforts were very much a part of public discourse at Pomona. Regardless of whether 90 percent of workers actively support the WFJ movement or whether a majority remain on the fence, indifferent, or support it more on grounds of solidarity than actual unionization, the very existence of Workers for Justice is telling in and of itself. The movement and the interviews conducted with workers last week strongly suggest a lack of communication, trust, and understanding between the administration and the dining hall staff. While this is less the fault of the current administration than a build-up of tensions that go back for years, it is an issue that remains to be resolved.

Given the long history of miscommunication and misunderstanding between workers and administration, the administration will only perpetuate this miscommunication if it fails to acknowledge the unionization efforts when informing workers how their workplace will now change (Yes, informing, not having a dialogue – let’s be real, this was a unilateral decision). It needs to have a meeting with workers that specifically addresses both WFJ and the termination of the Sodexo contract. The administration’s insistence on having open dialogue and campus discussion about unionization efforts makes this even more necessary.

It’s perfectly plausible to believe that the administration’s announcement to terminate the Sodexo contract is simply the next step down a predetermined path that started before the unionization effort was even conceptualized. But even if the administration doesn’t see a connection between WFJ and the Sodexo contract, it needs to openly acknowledge that many others, including workers, obviously do.

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