Pomona dining workers may vote to strike, depending on upcoming contract negotiation talks

The dining hall union is currently in negotiations with Pomona administration to increase wages for dining hall staff. (Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

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After Tuesday’s contract negotiation meeting between Pomona College administration and the college’s dining hall union, workers told TSL they are willing to hold a strike vote if the next negotiation meeting does not result in an agreement.

Over the past three weeks, members of Pomona’s dining hall staff organized a series of demonstrations prompted by an Aug. 17 contract negotiation meeting. Represented by UNITE HERE: LOCAL 11, workers requested a $9.40 raise this year — amounting to a $28 minimum wage — which the college countered with a $2.80 raise split over the next three years. 

“At this point, we feel that they’re not taking us seriously,” Edward Mac, a Pomona cook and member of the union’s negotiation team, told TSL. “And the thing is, we’re very serious about these negotiations, and we’re very serious about what we want, [so] we’re looking at further action… we’re looking at a possible strike vote and then also going on strike.” 

In response to the counter offer, hundreds marched in support of the workers’ union at a Labor Day rally, and dozens of workers and students marched to Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr’s office two Tuesdays in a row to press the issue.

The weekend after the first Tuesday delegation, Pomona set a contract negotiation meeting for Sept. 20, which took place at an administrative building owned by The Claremont Colleges Services and lasted over four hours.

Pomona’s delegation at the meeting was headed by the college’s new treasurer Jeff Roth, according to dining hall staff member Rolando Araiza. Roth officially started his job at Pomona two weeks prior to the negotiation meeting.

Araiza told TSL the offer Roth presented on Tuesday was a $4.80 wage increase split over a four year contract with a one-time bonus of $1000. The original proposal in August was a $2.80 increase over three years.

This proposal included virtually the same increase as the one negotiated in 2019, which expired this July, Araiza added.

“We didn’t really see any change, to be honest,” Araiza told TSL. 

Roth said via email that the administration’s new proposal was “significantly higher than the initial offer” presented at the Aug. 17 meeting, showing how “seriously the administration is taking these negotiations.” 

“We believe the previous dining contract was a significant step forward, offering real progress in addressing the cost-of-living pressures employees face, and now we are seeking to strongly build on those gains for our dining and catering teams in the next contract,” Roth said. 

With LA County’s consumer price index increasing by 7.6 percent in the past 12 months, some dining workers say the wages established by their previous contract are no longer enough to make ends meet.

“Everything’s going up, but our pay is just plateauing,” Aaron Archer, a worker at Café 47, told TSL. “But that doesn’t stop our rent from going up. That’s not stopping groceries from going up. That’s not stopping the cost of living from going up.”

Mac said that in order to live in La Verne, which allows him to bike to Claremont for work, he has to work two and a half jobs that span both weekdays and weekends.

“I have a mom that has cancer. I live with my family and I help support them,” Mac said. “And it’s very hard because one day, I want to be able to move and buy a house … and it’s very hard to be able to afford these things.”

At the negotiation, union representatives demonstrated with a cost-of-living calculator that higher wages were necessary for Pomona dining hall workers to support themselves given the steep cost of living in Los Angeles County, according to Jessica Shen-Wachter SC ’24, who was present at the meeting.

“I’m not the only one that works like that,” Mac told TSL. “We have many employees that do double shifts. They work six days a week, five days a week, they work over 12 hours a day, just to make ends meet, just to make enough money so they can pay their rent, send their kids to school.” 

A possible escalation in tactics to achieve the union’s goal depends on the outcome of the next negotiation meeting set for Thursday, Araiza told TSL.

To Shen-Wachter, a leader of the Claremont Student Workers Alliance, the meeting reinforced that contracts are won through workplace organizing, not just negotiation.

“Pomona is never going to, of their own volition, come back with a satisfactory proposal unless they are significantly pushed. It’s just not in their material interests to do so,” Shen-Wachter said. “So in order for dining staff here to get the raise that they want and deserve and need, they’re going to have to take it. It’s not going to be something the college is going to give them.”

Mac said it’s not just about the money for him — he wants workers to be treated with dignity.

“I want the college to respect us and respect our work,” Mac said. “The work that we do is skilled work.” 

Roth told TSL that the college respects and appreciates the dining and catering team.

“We all share the goal of providing excellent wages paired with an exceptional package of benefits to support employees and their families,” Roth said.

However, Mac said the administration’s failure to meet workers’ monetary needs speaks to their lack of understanding about the daily work of the dining hall staff.

“I would like to have anyone from the administration come and do my job one day. Come in at 6 o’clock in the morning, make coffee for the students, make breakfast burritos at 7, make açai bowls a little bit later and then go and take a break on time,” Mac said. 

“Take 30 minutes before your fifth hour, come back and do your lunch prep. And know how much chicken you’re supposed to defrost or how much fish you need to cut for the day, to estimate all of that, and make sure that you have enough, and you’re not over. And then do a lunch service with the students. And after that, go and do another shift, washing thousands of plates. And then after that, go to sleep for six, seven hours, and do it all over again.” 

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