Tomorrow, Pomona College students and their visiting families will face a choice, and that choice will not be easy. Workers for Justice (WFJ), a pro-union coalition of Pomona’s food service workers, has chosen Saturday to orchestrate a boycott of Frank and Frary in order to show support for the group’s position on unionization efforts. WFJ has demanded a secret vote-by-mail system for its unionization referendum, as well as a pledge from the administration guaranteeing its neutrality during the voting process. However, the administration has maintained its position that it will support only the federally-sponsored National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote for unionization, and it has made no written guarantees of neutrality.
At this time, The Student Life does not wish to take a position on whether or not a union is better for food service workers, or better for the college community in general. We also do not wish to take a position on what type of vote is most fair. Like most issues that really get at the heart of democracy, the question of a unionization vote for Pomona’s food service workers is a thorny one, one that makes us question whether or not we can ever really know how to build a fair and democratic community.
But there are some things we do know. We know that the question of unionization is not one that is taken lightly by Pomona’s workers. It was not decided on a whim, not bred from a fickle or uninformed discontent. Any Claremont student can attest to the dedication of Pomona’s dining staff. Throughout the unionization discussions of the past few semesters, the workers have constantly reiterated their devotion to the service of students, and the personal experience of this publication’s editors only affirms this.
The workers are not asking for easier jobs. What they are asking for is working conditions that respect this extraordinary devotion and also reflect the extraordinary challenges that they face—the ability to provide food, shelter, and health care for their families when they work on the margins of the economic spectrum, the ability to fit time with these families into their demanding schedules. They think that a union is the best channel through which to achieve this. While we cannot say whether or not this is the case, we can say that these goals deserve respect, and that we cannot consider this college a true community if it doesn’t take these goals seriously.
Certainly, the action that WFJ plans to take tomorrow is a drastic one. What we must ask ourselves is why WFJ might feel that such drastic tactics are necessary at this point. Past boycotts have been implemented with minimal negative impact, though tensions ran high. However, the college devotes extraordinary resources, monetary and otherwise, to planned family weekend meals. The dispersal of patrons from Frank and Frary will likely have a significant negative impact on the dining services of the other colleges, most of whom will be hosting families this weekend as well.
We do not wish to argue that our college administration does not take WFJ’s demands seriously. Indeed, we are pleased at the openness that they have demonstrated in recent weeks as they reached a verbal agreement with WFJ regarding neutrality. The new dining management has also stated that it will implement scheduling changes that address many of workers’ long-standing complaints.
These are encouraging developments, but they feel like appeasements rather than the true shift in attitude that might truly be needed to address workers’ concerns. Perhaps the administration by its very nature is not in a position to bring about this change.
So consider this as you make your dining plans for Saturday: Choosing to participate in the boycott does not necessarily mean committing to a political stance on the union vote. It does not necessarily mean tacit agreement with WFJ’s tactics. What it does mean is listening. The dining hall staff have devoted their working lives to serving this community, and we should listen closely. And when we should listen especially when they feel like they need to shout in order to be heard.