Union or bust? Pitzer workers raise allegations of administrative wrongdoing while organizing

Students joined the Claremont Student Workers Alliance’s show of solidarity for Pitzer College staff workers at a rally in 2018. (The Student Life)

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Two weeks after Pitzer College staff workers went public with a union campaign on May Day, staff members and other members of the 5C community delivered the paperwork for the first of three Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) organizers have filed since May 10. 

Citing an anti-union tilt from their supervisors, workers raised allegations of actions they claim violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and were intended to bust unionizing efforts.  

A vote on whether to form a union is slated to take place over the summer, and if the majority of workers vote in favor of it, members of Pitzer’s dining hall, custodial, maintenance and grounds keeping staff will be represented. 

Workers said they are organizing for better negotiation for increased pay, medical benefits and training for both supervisors and employees when it comes to informing staff about their labor rights — including guidelines for organizing. 

Represented by Unite Here! Local 11, the workers have filed three ULPs, which are formal complaints that raise allegations against an employer for unlawful behavior in the workplace. When ULPs are filed, they are sent to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency that enforces U.S. labor law, for an investigation.

All three ULPs allege that different administrative members of the college and its catering service, Bon Appétit Management Company, violated the NLRA by prohibiting conversations about unionizing while on the clock.

The first ULP alleges that Deanna Caballero, Pitzer’s assistant vice president of human resources and payroll services, discouraged Pitzer dining hall workers from organizing, while reportedly threatening retaliation against those who join the union and promising benefits for those who don’t. According to the NLRA, these actions could possibly violate federal labor law.

Caballero did not respond to TSL’s request for comment about the allegations made against her. Speaking on her behalf, Pitzer communication representative Wendy Shattuck said via email that “the college will not comment on current or pending legal activity,” and that it remains “compliant with all applicable labor laws.”

The ULP also claims Caballero held a captive audience meeting, a mandatory all-staff discussion led by the employer to discuss workers’ rights to support or resist a union, where she allegedly restricted when conversations about the union could occur. 

Captive audience meetings are currently legal, but NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo in April that calls for the longstanding precedent to be overturned. 

Citing Abruzzo’s intention to scrap captive audience meetings, a second ULP was filed on May 24. It alleges that Toni Morbitt, an outside contracted employee with Pitzer’s catering service Bon Appétit Management Company, held a mandatory attendance meeting on May 12 where she banned conversations about forming a union at work. 

Morbitt did not respond to TSL’s request for comment, but a representative from Bon Appétit Management Company spoke on her behalf.

“Morbitt is a Bon Appétit employee and recently moved to another state as part of a long-term personal plan,” representative Peter Todaro said. “Along with Pitzer, Bon Appétit respects employees’ right to organize in accordance with all applicable laws.”

On May 26, Melvin Oliver, then the president of Pitzer, sent a letter to the community, asserting the college’s stance on supporting the “rights of employees to vote on whether to be represented by a union.” The letter followed a series of demonstrations led by students affiliated with the Claremont Student Workers Alliance (CSWA) before the spring semester ended.

Oliver added that “discussion of [union] issues must take place in non-working spaces during non-working time,” prompting workers to cite the NLRA and file a third ULP against Pitzer on June 16. 

When asked to comment on the allegations raised in the three ULPs, Shattuck again told TSL via email that “the college will not comment on current or pending legal activity.” 

Shattuck added that Pitzer “fully supports the right of employees to vote on whether to be represented by a union,” but some staff workers told TSL that the series of alleged administrative actions outlined in the ULPs have made that message less clear to them.

“All we’re trying to do is tell people what their options are and give them the opportunity to learn what [the union] is and then how this is related to their life or not,” according to a Pitzer grounds keeping worker, who requested partial anonymity in case of retaliation from administration. “The frustrating part is that this entire school, the president, HR and our managers are all anti-union.” 

A cook that works at McConnell Dining Hall, who was also granted partial anonymity for the same privacy concerns, added that organizers are hoping to secure scholarships for their next of kin if they study at Pitzer. All of this could be more easily achieved if there was a union to represent them, they said.

The cook said that the current level of pay, despite a generous benefits package, makes it difficult to afford rent or to support a family. Some workers with several years of experience are paid $17 to $18 an hour, the source said. 

In late June, a maintenance worker, who TSL granted partial anonymity, said they had received a 42 cents hourly pay raise, an increase that went into effect July 1, whereas the previous year’s raise was 60 cents. 

The maintenance worker said they are organizing in hopes of attaining better support from managers, including recognition when negotiating for wages.

“I need someone that can stand up for me, because I feel like my managers don’t,” the maintenance worker said. “I feel like my managers don’t listen until it’s affecting them.”

“I need someone that can stand up for me, because I feel like my managers don’t. I feel like my managers don’t listen until it’s affecting them.” — A Pitzer College maintenance worker

Shattuck told TSL that the college’s “wage rates are highly competitive within the industry,” and that the increases coincide with inflation and fluctuations in the national consumer price index. 

Unlike other institutions, Pitzer did not lay off any hourly workers (or any workers at all) during the COVID pandemic,” she said. “This had a budget impact for the College, but we believed it was important to support and protect employees during a time of crisis.”

The calls for a vote come on the heels of Honnold Mudd librarians’ decision to unionize in March. Before then, the only 5C labor group protected by a union was Pomona’s dining hall staff, after voting in favor of one in 2013 after over three years of negotiations.

Marie Ocampo, a staff worker and member of Pomona’s dining hall union, said Pomona’s union  supported Pitzer workers’ organizing efforts. She added that Pomona workers have negotiated better wages and sought increased health benefits since the formation of the union.

“We’re 100 percent in support for them to do that because we know that struggle,” Ocampo said.

Pitzer worker’s unionizing efforts fall in line with a national increase in recently filed ULPs. As of July 13, the NLRB reported that the quantity of ULPs during the first three quarters of the current fiscal year has surpassed the prior year’s total — an increase of 14.5 percent.

5C students and members of CSWA have been organizing over the summer to support the workers’ right to unionize, via phone banking and social media campaigns

When workers started to pick up on what Vivi Krauss SC ‘23 called an “anti-union tilt from [Pitzer] management,” students at CSWA wanted to get involved to help inform workers what their rights are when it comes to unionizing.

Krauss, a student organizer with CSWA, suggested Pitzer could have done a better job informing their employees and contractors about what type of behavior violates the NLRA.

“Pitzer can’t say anything in support or against the union because workers deserve to have a free choice and not have people in power breathing down their necks,” Krauss said. 

The Pitzer cook said that if Pitzer is discouraging conversations about unionizing at work, then they are contradicting their mission statement. 

“The college teaches social justice,” the cook said.” And it turns out, I have to learn about social justice from the students to be able to use it against Pitzer…what does Pitzer stand to lose by practicing what they teach?” 

“I have to learn about social justice from the students to be able to use it against Pitzer…what does Pitzer stand to lose by practicing what they teach?” — a cook at McConnell Dining Hall

The maintenance worker agreed, and said at times it feels like the college’s messaging doesn’t feel like it applies to staff workers. 

“The reason why I even took this job was because the way Pitzer presented themselves — the job is good, but the pay isn’t very good,” the maintenance worker said. “It’s starting to seem like it was all words.”

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