Pomona dining hall workers to strike Friday, Saturday; Student groups call for boycott

Students participating in the Pomona dining hall workers strike walk past Big Bridges Auditorium.
This weekend’s strike comes as a result of months of negotiations and rallies for dining hall workers’ higher wages. (Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

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Following two months of unsuccessful negotiations with Pomona College’s administration, Pomona dining hall workers will strike Friday and Saturday to protest for higher wages in their contract renewal.

Dining workers will be picketing from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in designated areas of Pomona’s campus, including outside Frary Dining Hall, according to Edward Mac, a member of the dining hall union’s negotiations team and the lead cook at Café 47.

Workers’ current ask is an $8.80 raise by the end of this year to total a $28 hourly wage for the following year. Pomona’s latest counteroffer, a $5.40 increase over four years, did not meet these demands, prompting this weekend’s strike, according to Mac. 

Efren Zamora, who works as a cook at The Coop Fountain, said he is striking because Pomona’s current offer is not enough for him to make ends meet. Zamora said that due to inflation and the high cost of living, he now has to live with his parents.

“Especially in LA County with how everything’s going up, it’s hard to find an affordable place to live,” Zamora said. “We’re just trying to make a livable wage. I don’t think it’s fair that there’s people here that are working overtime, not because they want to, but because they have to [make] ends meet.” 

With the strike coinciding with Pomona’s Family Weekend, Mac called on Pomona students and families to join workers during the picket and to boycott college-provided meals throughout Friday and Saturday.

“It would show a huge amount of support if the families and the students say, ‘No, we’re boycotting Pomona College dining services while the workers are on strike,’” Mac said.

Mac said that workers are organizing an event at 1 p.m. on Walker Beach this Saturday with tacos and live music for workers, students and families.

“We’re not against anybody,” Mac said. “We’re just sick and tired of being looked at without respect. We deserve respect and dignity. And we’re going to go … we’re going to picket, we are going to protest and we’re going to demand just that respect and dignity.”

“We’re just trying to make a livable wage. I don’t think it’s fair that there’s people here that are working overtime, not because they want to, but because they have to [make] ends meet.”

Efren Zamora

Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall told TSL that Family Weekend will go forward as planned and the college will continue to “operate the dining halls and strive to maintain access to meals with the minimum level of disruption.” 

In response to the upcoming strike and picketing, Jeff Roth, Pomona’s chief operating officer and treasurer, emailed students and families on Thursday with updates on the negotiations and alternative dining options for students. Roth’s email to parents included a link to the new page on Pomona’s website dedicated to the union negotiations.

“While both parties share the goal of raising pay in significant ways to support employees and their families, union officials’ continued demand for a 45 percent wage increase over a single year is not a realistic or sustainable path,” Roth said in the email, reiterating previous communications to students.

In an Oct. 21 email to the college community, Roth stated the college was seeking to obtain a third-party perspective from an outside mediator. In his Thursday email, Roth confirmed that Pomona had reached out to a third-party mediator from the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service to help in the negotiation process.

“For many weeks, Pomona College has been urging Unite Here to agree to neutral outside mediation to help resolve our differences,” the website said.

Noel Rodriguez PO ’89, an organizer for UNITE HERE! Local 11, told TSL that the union has neither accepted nor rejected mediation. He said that a mediator is not the solution to the current impasse in negotiations and that the colleges’ focus on mediation is a distraction from workers demands.

“The college has mentioned mediation, and we’re not opposed to mediation,” Rodriguez said. “[But] the issue isn’t the lack of a mediator. The issue is the college understanding how hard it is to pay the bills right now, for their employees, to listen to them. A mediator isn’t going to say anything more persuasive than what the workers themselves have already said.”

Rodriguez also said that Pomona’s language in emails about the negotiations have not centered workers’ voices.

“There is a worker negotiating committee at the table — why don’t they talk about them?” Rodriguez said. “Why don’t they talk about what they’ve heard from the workers in the negotiating committee, who have spoken to Jeff [Roth] directly and repeatedly about how they can’t pay the rent? Yeah, the committee of workers took a vote. And [92] percent said that they were authorizing the negotiating committee to call a strike. And the negotiating committee called the strike, not union officials.”

Hector Melendrez, a utility worker at Frary, told TSL that the strike is a necessary move in light of the stalled negotiations.

“If we don’t strike, Pomona’s not gonna listen to us, and they’ll do whatever they want,” he said.

In response to workers’ demands for higher wages and the administration’s reaction, some Pomona faculty members have begun to circulate a letter of support for dining workers this week, which now has over 67 signatures, according to Pomona professor Miguel Tinker Salas, who signed the petition and is circulating it among the faculty.

Tinker Salas said that the wage demands made are reasonable, given that the administration was inactive in keeping up with previous rises in living costs. 

“What may seem for the administration a large sum, in reality is only large because the wages in the past have been so low,” Tinker Salas said.

“What may seem for the administration a large sum, in reality is only large because the wages in the past have been so low.”

Pomona professor Miguel Tinker Salas

Recognizing the needs of workers to sustain themselves with higher wages is another responsibility of the college that is undermined by the introduction of a third-party mediator into negotiation conversations, according to Tinker Salas. 

“[Pomona’s response] creates an adversarial relationship, when none needs to exist,” Tinker Salas said. “And this proposal that we should submit to mediation — that’s absurd. Most mediators are former labor relations specialists for corporations or for companies, not labor officials. It’s a very one-sided process. This is the responsibility of the college to simply recognize the needs of its staff [and] of its workers and to try to meet those needs of people who don’t have to then hold two jobs and have to make choices between gasoline and food and taking care of their families.”

Tinker Salas added that the ongoing negotiations represent a disconnect between the stated values of the college and its action. 

“I think this is the struggle for the soul of the college,” he said. “Yes, it’s a struggle for economic equity, long overdue economic equity. And it’s also a struggle for the soul of the college and what the college wants that reinforces its values.” 

Several 5C student groups have also taken action to stand in solidarity with dining hall workers this week.

Through a series of online articles, Instagram posts and flyers distributed across campus, the Claremont Student Worker Alliance called upon 5C students to boycott all Pomona food venues including Frary, Frank Dining Hall, Oldenborg Dining Hall, Café 47, the Coop Fountain and college-sponsored food trucks for the duration of the strike. 

“Striking is a last resort. This is a sign to pay attention,” CSWA stated in a strike FAQ document they created and circulated through the community. “We know that workers deserve a livable wage and that a $3.92 billion endowment is more than enough to make that happen. We also know that our schools are terrified of bad optics and unprepared for the power of a united student-worker community. Now is the time to show up and show out.” 

CSWA announced on its Instagram that it plans to deliver food to those in COVID-19 isolation who may face a disruption in meal services. Students are also volunteering to drive those with disabilities to other dining halls or pick up food for those facing accessibility issues in light of the boycott.

Isabela Piedrahita PZ ’22 said that CSWA is creating a petition for parents to sign to voice support for the dining hall workers. She said workers are taking a “historic step” with this strike.

“I’m entering this workforce here in a few months. So it means a lot to me personally, that I know there are people in my community that are willing to fight for more, not just for themselves, but for the surrounding area here in the Inland Empire,” she said.

Reiterating last week’s ASPC’s resolution in support of dining hall workers, ASPC’s Equity and Inclusion Committee announced in an email to students Thursday that it will offer free pizza at the picket line Friday and Saturday along with a card-making station to show appreciation for dining hall staff.

Other groups such as Claremont Challah and Pomona’s Women’s Union Alliance have voiced their support for dining hall workers through Instagram posts, calling on students to participate in the boycott of Pomona’s dining services during the strike. 

To Zamora, giving workers a raise is an important step that Pomona can take to ensure all members of its community are content.

“And at the end of the day, it looks good on everybody. Not only are we going to be happy because we get this pay increase that is going to help us and our family. But I feel the school is gonna look good from the outside,” Zamora said. “So when people look at Pomona College, [they’ll say] not only is it a great school for our kids, but it’s also a good paying school — the employees are happy.”

Jake Chang contributed reporting

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