Several weeks ago, Pomona College President David Oxtoby told me and several other concerned students to tell the dining hall workers to turn in their cards and file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. On Wednesday, they did exactly that. They did so not because they expect the college to be neutral—that is, to agree to avoid involving itself in the workers’ efforts to organize—but because they now feel strongly enough to demand it. As a student member of Workers for Justice (WFJ), I ask my classmates and members of the community to support the workers in their demands for neutrality.
A year or two ago, I would not even have dreamed of writing this piece. I was apathetic and bought into the college’s rhetoric. In addition, I found WFJ members’ tactics abrasive and alienating. Probably many of you reading this still feel that way. We understand students at the 5Cs are very busy and that it is the rare human being who wants to talk to a stranger about a petition. If we have bothered you while trying to get your signatures on our petition demanding neutrality, which around 800 Pomona students have signed, or during a rally, I am deeply sorry. Still, I hope that you will look past any issues you have had with our tactics in the past and focus on the substance of the matter: the right of the workers to organize without facing intimidation and harassment.
I first got involved out of a sense of growing cognitive dissonance about the school’s stance on neutrality. The school claims that they are acting out of principle in their offer of so-called partial neutrality, wherein they would retain the right to have mandatory meetings to explain both sides of the issue as well as to respond to misinformation and questions from workers. The school argues that as an educational institution, they have an enhanced duty to ensure that “individuals [have] complete information when they’re making decisions,” according to Vice President Karen Sisson.
Although I find the college’s goals praiseworthy, I question the college’s commitment to these values. For one, this is the very same school that in 2011 put in place a gag rule that banned workers from talking with students while working, ostensibly for productivity reasons. This administration originally stood behind the policy until challenged by the NLRB’s General Counsel. If this does not convince you, let me speak from personal experience. Students from WFJ attempted to hang banners in support of workers during Family Weekend. I watched a dining hall manager, assisted by Dean Frank Bedoya, take them down shortly after they were put up. They did not ask us, nor did they tell us that we could not put them up. Nor did they explain that we had broken any rules. As far as I can tell, they engaged in an act of censorship to save face for the school during a delicate time. Regardless of their rhetoric, it seems as though the administration is willing to silence its workers and students, even if they will not allow restrictions on their own speech.
Not only does Pomona appear not to follow the values it espouses, but also the practical effects of this partial neutrality policy are quite unnerving. It is hard to stomach the thought of mandatory, captive audience meetings. While Sisson states that managers have been instructed “not to have any conversation about unions with employees in a one-on-one situation,” there is no such policy on talking with the workers in groups. Indeed, when I talked to Oxtoby, he seemed to suggest that they would hold such meetings to ensure that all workers were, to paraphrase, properly informed. While one-on-one meetings are undeniably particularly intimidating, a captive audience meeting where the school gets to expound its viewpoint to workers will similarly impress on workers that the college controls their livelihoods. Consequently, I am not sure that the college has made much of a concession.
As for responding to misinformation, while I certainly do not want the workers to make their choice based off of falsehoods, I am skeptical of the college’s impartiality or restraint on the matter. If they were truly interested in ensuring that workers receive accurate and unbiased information, they could have reached out to the workers to find some kind of mutually satisfactory arrangement—for example, by setting up an independent body to adjudicate complaints about misinformation. However, over these past three and a half years, the administration has made no such effort. There remains a real risk that managers will abuse the ability to respond to workers’ inquiries about the union to pull workers into one-on-one meetings.
Unfortunately, the college is likely to do much more than just force workers to attend intimidating meetings. They might try to delay the election until the summer, when students are not present. They might write up workers for minimal policy violations. They might use promotions to bribe workers. It would not even be unprecedented, both nationally or here at Pomona, for them to fire workers. In all these cases, the workers will need the support of students to show the school we are not going to stand idly by while injustices occur.
Recognizing the illusory nature of the college’s position first led me to get involved. But what has caused me to continue is what I have seen and heard from the workers themselves. I will not try to tell you how the workers feel, but I encourage you to talk to them yourself and see. There is no better way to find out what is really going on in our dining halls.