President Oxtoby’s e-mail response to the investigation of workplace misconduct by Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services Bob Robinson raises the question: as students, how do we come to understand an event about which we’re told conflicting stories?
To be clear: I fully believe the account of all three students who were present at the meeting with Mr. Robinson. I’m not asking that readers agree with their version of the story, but rather that readers think about the ways that the college has represented this event and other events related to Workers for Justice.
In a March 31 e-mail to all students regarding the incident, President Oxtoby shared the results of the college’s investigation, writing that “the involved parties have been notified of the factual conclusions reached. The investigation did not support the accusation of workplace violence.”
The students’ allegations against Mr. Robinson have serious implications for the improprieties reported by workers over the past 13 months. If the allegations against him were verified, they would add another layer of urgency to workers’ concerns. In the last few months, these concerns have included: two firings, one-on-one anti-union meetings with worker leaders, a more hostile work environment since the change in dining hall management, managers asking workers to remove pro-union buttons, and managers threatening to fire workers or alter schedules for missing time due to illness or for speaking to students.
Seen in this context, the allegations against Robinson hold significant gravity for two reasons. First, they affect the Pomona community’s perception of the workers’ unionization effort. Second, a college-led investigation into allegations against a critical college employee represents a serious conflict of interest for the college. With the college policing itself, no adequate checks exist on its ability to hold monopolies on information, narrative, and judgment.
On top of that, President Oxtoby’s e-mail offers no insight into the actual investigation process. A few questions immediately come to mind: How was the investigation conducted and by whom? How was the conclusion reached? Nor has the college verified that other witnesses came forward. If they did come forward, what questions were they asked, by whom, and under what circumstances? Do we have any indication that the investigation turned up any evidence beyond the testimonies of the four people involved?
Furthermore, what does President Oxtoby mean by a “factual conclusion”? If Mr. Robinson did kick over a chair but the action did not constitute “workplace violence,” then such a conclusion is a value judgment, not a fact. If he did not kick the chair over, then the President’s e-mail suggests that the students were lying.
With President Oxtoby's response raising more questions than it answers, it’s unacceptable that there is no counterbalance to the college’s power to investigate and interpret the allegations against Robinson. The college effectively has the power to dismiss any concern that falls short of having overwhelming and undeniable evidence in its favor. While Mr. Robinson deserves all due respect from students and workers, we should not privilege his and the college’s public perception over the concerns of dozens of dining hall workers who take serious issue with the structural barriers that limit their input on the management of their workplace environment.
Given President Oxtoby's criticism of how the event's details were disseminated, we should also consider the importance of the students’ decision to publicly distribute information as a check on the college’s ability to communicate widely about this and other events related to Workers for Justice. In his e-mail, President Oxtoby noted that information about the investigation would not have been shared publicly, save that it had already received coverage.
What’s more: the college’s handling of this situation is part of a dangerous pattern in the college’s behavior that has begun to form. In February, the college conducted an investigation into allegations made against a worker and WFJ member, who was then fired. As cited in a TSL article on the subject, college employees offered no proof that the investigation was in any way fair or conclusive, leaving open the possibility that the firing served in part as a scare tactic against members of Workers for Justice. At no point during or after did the college fully explain their process or indicate that any witnesses had been present. Again, there was no check on the college’s power over information.
We may soon see a third iteration of this pattern of unchecked authority over information. On March 30, a delegation made up of students and workers approached President Oxtoby in his office. Christian Torres, a WFJ leader, shared details of a one-on-one meeting between himself and Glenn Graziano, the new Pomona general manager under dining hall self-management. Torres reported to President Oxtoby that during their meeting Graziano had discouraged him from helping organize a union, giving reasons why it would be unhelpful for workers. Torres and Rolando Araiza, another member of WFJ, emphasized to the President that they felt this was an act of intimidation, and that it was especially inappropriate given that Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson had agreed in principle to management neutrality during negotiations in January. President Oxtoby told Torres that he would investigate the matter. If the pattern holds, we can expect that the President will again discover no evidence of wrongdoing.
For all the college’s power over information related to WFJ, its most potent power is that of delay. In the two months since the last negotiation at Pomona, food service workers at Georgetown University went public, got university backing, and won a union to bargain collectively with their employer, Aramark, after 80 percent of workers signed a demand for neutrality. Thirteen months ago, over 90 percent of dining service workers at Pomona demanded the same.
A timely and neutral vote represents a needed check on the college's ability to influence where or not workers want to form a union. Students, faculty, staff and alumni should question Pomona's repeated delays, their unwillingness to sign a neutrality agreement, and their problematic methods of self-policing and information distribution. We should insist on transparency and support a fair union vote as unequivocally as the workers who demand it.