Food and Free Speech: Let Them Speak!

The Workers for Justice movement is currently stymied because the workers’ organizing committee wants the administration to remain neutral during the vote for unionization, which the administration refuses to accept. From the workers’ standpoint, neutrality is crucial for a fair union vote free from intimidation by their bosses. Since going public, dining hall workers have identified multiple cases of such intimidation, some of which they have reported as unfair labor practices: one worker recounted a boss insinuating that he might be promoted if he removed his WFJ button; another spoke of a manager telling her to remove her button; another told of a mandatory, one-on-one meeting during which a boss listed the negative aspects of unions. Additionally, two of the original five workers on the organizing committee have been fired since the campaign began. When compiled, these incidents have the power to discourage workers from speaking about organizing in the workplace, which makes them even more courageous when they do speak out.

The administration contends that neutrality would limit their right to speak about the issue. President David Oxtoby phrased the administration’s stance in an Oct. 10 Senate meeting: “I think that we’re not willing to limit speech in any way.”

But does the administration really want to protect “speech” about this issue, a claim it uses to defend its refusal to concede neutrality? A memo written over the summer delineating when workers and “non-employees” (students, alumni, professors, and anyone eating at Pomona dining halls) are not allowed to speak with each other—which is still in effect—contradicts the administration’s claims of fostering open dialogue. Three of the provisions expressly operate to prevent free speech. I quote:

• Non-employees may not interrupt nor visit with employees while they are working.

• If a non-employee wants to visit with an employee during their break or lunch, they must go outside the building.

• Campus Safety may be called to escort offenders out of the building.

The first of these provisions prevents students from speaking with cashiers and other workers who might have spare moments for conversation, which would not necessarily “interrupt” workflow, as the memo implies. The second essentially disallows students from speaking with employees within the dining hall, ever. The third goes so far as to make any conversation a campus security concern. Far from fostering open dialogue, the memo is clearly an attempt to shut down dialogue between workers and students. From my experience, it is already sometimes difficult to speak to workers across racial, class, age, employment, and other socially-constructed differences. Now here at Pomona, such speech is not allowed.

Because this memo explicitly contradicts the values of a liberal arts college (not to mention the values of the First Amendment), I brought it up to President Oxtoby at the Senate meeting. He denied the existence of the provision that disallowed student-worker speech while workers are on break in the dining hall.

“While they’re on break, they can, they may speak with workers,” he said. “Workers may speak with students or whoever while they’re on break.”

I returned to Frary on Oct. 23 to promote Food Day with an alumnus and a worker who was not on duty. Food Day allowed students to speak with workers about issues of food justice, sustainability, and workers’ rights. A manager informed us that we had to leave because we were with an off-duty employee in Frary, even though we had paid to enter the dining hall. He added that the main reason was that the alumnus was connected with unions and could not speak with any workers in the building. We protested, and he quickly threatened to call Campus Security. The president had said the provision preventing student conversation with off-duty employees in dining halls didn’t exist, yet it was still being enforced—explicitly against activities that build student-worker relations.

I brought the memo up in Senate again to Bob Robinson, Assistant Vice President and Director of Campus Services, on Oct. 24. Robinson said he has “overall responsibility for the dining program on campus.”

When I initially asked him about the provision that disallowed students from conversing with workers on break, he said it was not in effect: “you can talk with workers while they’re on break. That’s not a problem,” he told me.

I had the memo on hand and quoted the provision disallowing such speech. I said it had been enforced against me, and another senator said that it had been enforced against her when she was trying to teach English to dining hall workers on break.

Visibly uncomfortable, Mr. Robinson repeated that “if people are on break or on their lunch hour, they can talk with whoever they want.” Next, he told us “that thing was written a long time ago,” as if to claim it was no longer being implemented (though it still is). Another senator asked him to repeal the provision. He said he would act to repeal the policy: “I can certainly try to clean up that paperwork. I will do that,” he said.

I returned to Frary with another student a week later. In the conversation we had with workers on their lunch break, they expressed their frustration at not being listened to or respected in the workplace. Soon, however, a temporary worker who had been recording our conversation accused me and the other student of being agents paid by a union, which is completely untrue. She then got the same manager who had threatened to call Campus Security. Referring to the same memo, he told us we needed to leave. I told him that Robinson had informed the Senate he would change the memo to allow such conversations in the dining hall, but the manager insisted that the memo was the last one he had received and that it had to be enforced.

I have noticed a trend in the way power functions in a bureaucracy: through plausible deniability, it is hard to hold anyone accountable. The administration can claim to favor a dialogue and then act surreptitiously to prevent it. The people who are responsible for creating these rules—Robinson and other administrators—will simply deny that the policy exists until a copy is produced. After acknowledging its existence, they publicly state that they will act to repeal it. By failing to act, however, they leave the policy in effect and expect lower-level managers to continue enforcing it.

Our administration engages in a clever doublespeak: they claim to uphold free speech when they will benefit from it, and they silence the speech that would allow students to understand workers’ struggles. Their anti-neutrality stance seems to me to be part of a concerted campaign to stop worker-student organizing, which includes public denials of the policies that prevent candid dialogue between students and workers about struggles in the workplace.

I believe the only way we students can convince the administration to act fairly and responsibly is to ignore the ridiculous provision. Please speak with our dining hall workers on break or with those whose positions allow them a spare moment from time to time (though avoid obstructing dining hall operations). The administration wants to prevent dialogue between students and workers. This is because, through our conversations with workers, we will learn the ways in which they feel disrespected—minimal raises, overwork, silencing, and intimidation. As I see it, getting this memo repealed is a crucial first step to fighting against the administration’s attempts to cut off open dialogue. The fight for free speech must continue until the administration concedes neutrality, and workers and students can freely discuss the pros and cons of organizing in the workplace without bosses intervening, shutting off dialogue, and then shifting blame elsewhere.

Unlike our administration, I truly believe in open dialogue. If you have any questions or concerns about what I have said, feel free to contact me at

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