EDITORIAL BOARD: Pomona, it’s time to set a new precedent — put workers first

By the time this article has been published and distributed across the Claremont Colleges, the air around campus may feel different from your typical Friday morning — and not just because of the early morning chill of fall.

When the sun rose at 7:00 a.m this morning, students and workers had already been picketing outside Pomona College’s dining halls for an hour. Today marks the first day of what is anticipated to be a two-day walkout, aptly scheduled in time for Family Weekend.  

For those who are just catching up, after weeks of contract negotiations — which, so far, have been nothing but a bust — Pomona dining hall workers are placing an ultimatum on the college, picketing to bring a sense of urgency to their demand for a livable wage. 

Now, it’s up to the college to decide how to respond. Students, faculty, staff and alumni will be watching. Whether the college will make excuses about obligations to pay dues to an archaic and inequitable pay structure or opt to set a new precedent that puts livelihoods first is on the table. 

While exactly what happens at the bargaining table is between both negotiation teams — and not TSL’s area of expertise or position — what happens before and after affects us all: students, staff and, most importantly, workers.

In the next few days, Pomona will be presented with several options as to how best to proceed. The editorial board of TSL implores administration to exhaust all possibilities when negotiating with workers — in particular, to not repeat grievous administrative actions. 

Pomona has made headlines for being at the forefront of progress. In 2016, Pomona was heralded for leading the charge to protect DACA recipients from deportation under a fresh Trump administration. Pomona organized a letter urging the administration to “be upheld, continued and expanded”; over 200 other institutions also signed, including leaders of most of the Ivies. 

Yet, not even five years before pledging support for DACA, Pomona was making headlines for its place at the tail end of progress. In the midst of one of the most active union efforts to date, a “whistleblower” instigated a mass firing of Pomona staffers after lodging a complaint about the college’s hiring practices. Claiming it was legally obligated to check papers, Pomona ultimately fired 17 staff workers, many of whom had dedicated several decades of their lives to the college. Fifteen people — including three Pomona students and a Pitzer professor — were also arrested during that time.

Many questioned if the documentation checks were connected with the ongoing unionization efforts, which then-Pomona president David Oxtoby denied. However, faculty argued that Pomona had no obligations to take it to the extreme of turning the cases over to a law firm.

Workers, students and faculty were “frustrated that the administration was resisting the unionization process,” Pomona history professor Victor Silverman told TSL in 2018 in reference to the incident. “The community was becoming educated that there were real problems in the way the college was running the dining [halls] and how the workers were being treated.”

Despite having occurred a decade ago, these sentiments are no less salient. There is still much progress to be made in improving campus treatment — but this can and should be achieved without any threat to immigration status, livelihood or safety. There is a productive, respectful way to engage in negotiations that doesn’t wield threats of immigration and deportation especially when the asking points hold serious weight.

Time and time again, Chief Operating Officer and Treasurer Jeff Roth has said a 45 percent wage increase over the span of a year is “not a realistic demand we are able to meet.” What’s more unrealistic, however, is asking workers, who play an integral role on campus, to find a way to live significantly below a living wage. A living wage shouldn’t even have to be the bare minimum — yet our workers still don’t earn near it.

To make ends meet and afford a modest two-bedroom rental at a fair-market rate, a Los Angeles County resident would need at minimum a $39.81 hourly wage, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. While much lower, at $29.02 an hour, San Bernardino County commuters still need a significantly higher rate than the starting wage Pomona offers: a meager $18 hourly wage. 

Off the bat, a $9.40 wage increase could seem on the hefty side. But, in consideration of the circumstances, the wage workers want isn’t unwarranted. 

With local gas prices recently flirting with $7 a gallon — and most staff members commute to Claremont — combined with a 9.7 percent increase in food costs and a 22 percent increase in energy with 25 percent for gas alone, cost of living is rising, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That rounds out to an overall 7.8 percent CPI boost in just the last year — more than meriting a significant raise. 

Since when was pedagogy confined to the classroom? It’s easy to say college is all about preparing students for the “real world” and leave praxis out of the picture. But, then again, there’s the reality that, this too, is the real world. 

With weeks of organizing well underway, and students up and ready to boycott, there are many ways things can go from here. 

Pomona can delay a decision in hopes that student engagement wanes over winter break. Pomona can outright deny the wage increase request and deal with the consequences. Or it can acknowledge and meet the workers’ demand, placing itself back on the progressive pedestal and transform what shouldn’t have to be unprecedented into the rightful precedent. 

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