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On Thursday evening, Pomona College dining hall staff voted to authorize a strike, meaning that the workers’ contract negotiations committee may decide to mobilize, although no official plan to strike has been released.
The Oct. 20 authorization vote for a strike comes on the heels of a series of contract negotiation meetings between the college and the dining hall’s union, however, no agreements have yet been reached.
Eighty-four of 91 submitted ballots voted in favor of authorizing a strike, signifying the union’s overwhelming support to reject Pomona’s most recent wage increase proposal, which fell short of the workers’ demands.
Pomona’s offer, presented during a Sept. 30 contract negotiation meeting, was a $5.40 increase over four years — or $1.35 per year. Meanwhile, workers’ current asking wage is an increase of $8.80 to round out to a $28 hourly wage by next year.
At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, over a dozen student observers gathered in Frary Dining Hall as union representatives from Unite Here! Local 11 and dining hall organizers counted the votes, which were collected throughout the day.
With 92 percent of votes in favor of the strike, dining workers present at the ballot count expressed excitement about the results, voicing appreciation toward coworkers and students who have been supporting the recent movement for higher wages.
“We won,” Shireen Aslan, a Frary worker and a member of the negotiations committee, said following the ballot count. “We did it!”
In the weeks leading up to the vote, members of the union’s negotiation team collected pledge cards and met with individual staff members to explain what a strike vote would signify, Marie Ocampo, who works at Pomona as a caterer and baker, told TSL.
Ocampo, who is also a member of the negotiations team, said she was deeply moved by the result of the strike vote and the unity between her coworkers that it represented.
“I can’t even tell you — it feels amazing,” Ocampo said. “This is exciting because I’ve never seen this type of unity in the bargaining unit, ever. I’ve never seen that in the 8 1/2 years I’ve been with the college.”
To Arun Ramakrishna PZ ’22, a union organizer and member of the Claremont Student Workers Alliance, the strike vote was “a long time coming.”
“People are ready to fight for what they deserve and what they need,” Ramakrishna told TSL. “It’s about providing for their families. It’s about making sure their futures are secure, making sure their kids’ futures are secured. [Workers are] not taking this lightly, and they’re just asking the same of the college.”
Ocampo told TSL that to her, the administration’s response to workers’ demands highlights a lack of understanding due to privilege.
“They don’t see that there is poverty [here]. Poverty for them is not us. Poverty for them is a philanthropy that they go do this or go to do that, they pay $600 per meal and that goes to, maybe, somebody who works in cacao fields or kids who work in diamond mines. They don’t see this as poverty because they see us as the help. They just don’t get it,” Ocampo said.
Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall told TSL in a statement Thursday night that the college believes its recent offer “will create beneficial stability for dining employees and the college, ensuring concrete wage gains in an uncertain economic environment.”
Minutes after Thursday evening’s vote results, the college’s Chief Operating Officer and Treasurer, Jeff Roth, met with members of ASPC during a student senate meeting to discuss the implications of adopting the union’s proposal.
At the meeting, Roth said that the college’s stance on wage increases is the result of rules made by the Board of Trustees governing how much the college is able to spend in order to support the financial longevity of the college. Roth said that the college’s endowment, which is currently valued at $3 billion, accounts for almost half of the college’s annual operating budget, the payout of which has already been incorporated into plans for the upcoming fiscal year.
“We also have to look at all the other employees at the college,” Roth said during the meeting. “It’s a question of maintaining equity … We’re addressing this for our employees with a 60 percent increase over the period of two contracts. We also have an independent review of all the salaries going on at the college that gives us benchmark data on all the titles.”
“The expectation is that, over a four-year contract, things will start to settle down and we’ll get back to more historically normal inflation at some point,” Roth said. “But we are addressing the current pressures caused by inflation.”
Members of the public gave input following Roth’s remarks.
Francisco Villaseñor PO ‘25, a member of Claremont Student Workers Alliance, reiterated the near-unanimous vote which to him signified the workers’ commitment to a significant wage increase.
“I think that there is clear discontent with workers with where the negotiations are right now. I also feel that it is not fair to the agency of the workers themselves and the way in which you’re speaking about them,” Villaseñor told Roth. “I think it’s important to say that the workers have clearly spoken. They’re not satisfied with the offer and now they have authorized to vote in favor of a strike.”
After listening to comments, ASPC unanimously passed an amended resolution, taking into account student input, to support the dining hall staff during their strikes for whatever they deem a livable wage.
The measure also called for the boycott of dining services, including school-funded food trucks, if students are able to do so given the realities of food and financial insecurity, according to an ASPC email informing the student body of the resolution tonight.
“If labor actions do take place, we will continue to treat every employee and member of our community with respect,” Kendall told TSL. “We expect there will be impacts, and we will work to minimize any disruption by offering multiple options to ensure meals are still provided for our students each day.”
During the meeting, ASPC also discussed the possibility of diverting funds from other areas in its budget, such as those allocated for care packages, to provide other food options, like an ASPC-funded food truck for students during potential boycotts of college-provided options.
Roth left the meeting after taking questions, prior to the senate vote on the resolution.
His remarks Thursday evening mirrored his Oct. 14 email to students sent in conjunction with Brenda Rushford, assistant vice president of human resources, and Bob Robinson, assistant vice president of facilities.
“The 45 percent raise over a single year sought by the union’s negotiators is not a realistic demand we are able to meet,” the email said, which Kendall reiterated to TSL in his statement.
In response to Roth’s email, CSWA published a series of posts on Instagram denouncing Roth’s statements and highlighting purported wage differences between workers and the members of Pomona’s administration who sent the email.
Ramakrishna said that, to him, dining hall workers are not making an unprecedented ask.
“Pomona College is among the wealthiest colleges in the country,” Ramakrishna said. “What is being asked by workers is a large raise but it is not unreasonable given the amount of wealth that Pomona has and the cost of living in LA County.”
Ramakrishna referenced Yale University’s dining staff, where a cook currently has a starting wage rate of $30.11, according to their hiring page, as an example of a comparable university that pays workers a similar wage to what Pomona’s dining staff is asking for in negotiations.
Ocampo said that administrators could demonstrate more empathy for the work she and her colleagues do each day.
“I’d love for them to do an average day here, a 10-12 hour shift on their feet,” Ocampo said. “Cutting, peeling and cutting 2.50-pound bags and carrots or peeling and putting to the chopper 1.50 pounds of potatoes. Or marinating how many pounds of meat and grilling each piece. I’d love to see them do that and then come back to me.”
John Paul Ferrantino contributed reporting.