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This article was produced in partnership with Claremont Undercurrents, a student publication dedicated to covering labor, abolition, Palestine liberation and other leftist organizing on campus, and is also published at undercurrents.ghost.io.
In a series of demonstrations throughout the week, dozens of Claremont College students, Pitzer College workers and union leaders called Pitzer administrators’ and trustees’ attention to an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) filed by the union Tuesday. The protesters alleged that McConnell Dining Hall’s management company broke federal labor law by discharging two dining workers who supported the union.
These demonstrations included delegations to a Pitzer Board of Trustees meeting Thursday and to Pitzer Vice President Jim Marchant two days prior. In both demonstrations, workers were joined by over 60 participants and distributed copies of the ULP to the administration.
This marks the third ULP that the union has filed against Pitzer and Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) since Pitzer’s staff unionized with UNITE HERE! Local 11 last August. It’s the sixth complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board since the union campaign began last spring.
UNITE HERE! Attorney Julie Dickinson shared the latest three ULPs with TSL this Tuesday, along with a cover letter addressed to NLRB Regional Director William Cowen. Together, the documents allege that in the past months, managers at Pitzer and BAMCO have continuously violated employees’ rights through coercive actions and unlawful firings in an attempt to discourage support for the newly-formed union.
The latest ULP specifically alleges that managers retaliated against BAMCO workers Alexis Ongpin and Stephanie Smith by assigning them duties not related to their position, depriving them of sick and vacation pay and discharging them from their jobs because they expressed union support.
Meanwhile, two previous ULPs, filed Nov. 7 and Jan. 17 allege that in retaliation for his union support, former BAMCO employee Kevin Ayala was mistreated, deprived of work and denied sick time until he was eventually terminated.
Pitzer Director of Communications Wendy Shattuck told TSL via email that the school could not comment on the ULPs or negotiations and emphasized that Pitzer remained neutral on the question of unionization, a position reiterated by BAMCO Director of Communications Jennifer Slafkosky.
“Along with Pitzer, Bon Appétit respects employees’ right to organize and, as a company, we have a long history of listening to our employees and working productively with unions,” Slafkosky said via email.
Pitzer has subcontracted with BAMCO to manage their dining hall staff since before unionization efforts began. According to UNITE HERE! Local 11 representative Natasha Wong PZ ’22, however, Pitzer only began delegating BAMCO to hire workers in addition to managing them after Pitzer’s union campaign went public last spring.
Last May, members of Pitzer’s kitchen, groundskeeping, facilities and maintenance staff went public with a union campaign, which quickly became a point of tension throughout the summer. Through delegations and three ULPs, workers protested against alleged anti-union behavior taken by managers and members of the administration.
In August, Pitzer voluntarily recognized the union after a majority of workers signed union-authorization cards. As union representatives began contract negotiations in the fall though, a worker filed a decertification petition with the NLRB, leading to a second vote last December to preserve union representation, which the union narrowly won.
Six votes were contested the union decertification election. According to UNITE HERE! Organizing Director Noel Rodriguez PO ’89, some of these votes belonged to subcontracted workers, whom he said the administration claims are not represented by the union.
“Pitzer has fought hard to keep them out,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve demanded that they become Pitzer employees and part of the union over and over and over and Pitzer has repeatedly refused our demands.”
Wong said managers escalated unfair labor practices against subcontracted workers when contract negotiations resumed this year.
“Since the decertification election, [managers] have started really running a pretty heavy anti-union campaign,” Wong told TSL.
At the Tuesday delegation, the three former BAMCO workers spoke to Pitzer Vice President Jim Marchant about the mistreatment they faced after expressing support for the union.
“I started wearing my [union] pin. That was the first time I noticed how my responsibilities changed,” Smith, who was discharged on Jan. 10, said. “I’m not getting all the way down to cleaning counters. I’ve never done it before, I’m a caterer.”
She also said that managers told her and other BAMCO workers at a meeting that the union was “not [their] business” and to “stay away” — including at mandatory meetings during work hours, allegations which the Feb. 7 ULP reiterated.
Both Ayala and Ongpin told Undercurrents that they were laid off before they returned to work after winter break, which Ayala attributed to their subcontracted status.
“[We] don’t have rights that workers at Pitzer have just because [we] work for an agency,” Ayala told Undercurrents. “It’s unfair that someone is doing the same work as an employee and isn’t getting the same pay and benefits.”
The workers told Undercurrents that the unexpected terminations have taken a toll on their lives and families. Smith said at the delegation that she takes care of three grandchildren, while Ongpin said she was forced to use her terminally ill mother’s disability money to pay for rent when she lost her job.
“[Being fired] affects my family and my mom, the person that I want to take care of,” Ongpin said. “The workers that I worked with kept a smile on my face and reminded me that there’s good things in life. For me to not be here anymore and to get treated the way that I did get treated, it’s just added some more stress in my life.”
Smith said that she was promised 40 hours per week of work and eventual full time status when interviewing for the job at Pitzer and turned down another full time job to take the position — a far cry from the reality of her sudden termination.
“We last three months [on the job], and then they flip us and hire someone else,” she said at Tuesday’s delegation.
Pitzer and BAMCO did not directly respond to TSL’s inquiries as to why the workers were fired. Shattuck told TSL Pitzer “cannot comment on investigations or confidential personnel matters.”
At both delegations, members of the Claremont Student Workers Alliance (CSWA) and Pitzer’s Student Senate expressed their frustration with the college’s treatment of workers.
“We all thought that this community would be different. We all thought that Pitzer wouldn’t be like a big corporation that mistreats all of their workers,” said Ngaya Swai PZ ’23 at the Thursday delegation. “These core values that all of you guys preach are lies, clearly, because the people that are actually holding true to those are the workers that you’re exploiting day in and day out.”
Pitzer Student Senate Vice President Quin Mumford PZ ’24 emphasized that students would continue attempting to hold the school accountable for its actions.
“This is unacceptable. This is illegal and extremely unethical. We will not be letting this fly,” Mumford told Marchant. “These delegations have gotten larger and larger and they will continue to get larger and larger until you fix your practice and treat our workers with respect that they deserve.”
Workers organized the delegations after Wong informed them of the layoffs at a negotiating committee meeting, said Tony Hoang, who is a groundskeeper and member of the union committee.
“We all decided that, yes, this is all of us, [BAMCO workers] are not separate. That’s what the school wants us to think,” Hoang said. “That’s just a strategy for them to continue being divisive.”
The delegations posed challenges for both worker and student organizers, Hoang said.
“It’s not easy to go to your boss or your past employer and say, ‘you’ve done me wrong.’ So I have so much respect and love for [workers who spoke out],” he said.
CSWA has organized multiple delegations with Pitzer workers since the beginning of the school year, including one in December last year days before Pitzer’s decertification vote and one in January in protest of a new worker clock-in system, but this week they did not announce the delegations ahead of time.
“Every time that we plan a delegation, we show up and HR is never there. So our guess was, [let’s] try out this new tactic, make it more secretive…via word of mouth, via text,” said Elena Hockensmith PZ ’23, the leader of CSWA’s Pitzer committee. “It was really effective,” she added.
Pitzer building attendant Delmy Diaz, who led the Thursday delegation to the Board of Trustees meeting, emphasized the importance of student support in an interview with Undercurrents.
“What was really powerful also [were] the students who spoke up, the way that they [said], ‘Hey, Pitzer can’t exist without the students, so either you listen or we’re gonna keep doing this,’” she said.
Jacob Neville PZ ‘24 contributed reporting.
A previous version of this article stated that some workers had been fired by Pitzer, directly. They were not fired by Pitzer. They were fired by BAMCO. Natasha Wong PZ ’22 was also mis-paraphrased. TSL regrets these errors.