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Despite 103-degree weather this Labor Day afternoon, hundreds of Claremont Colleges students, Pomona College dining hall workers and local labor organizers showed up to a rally outside Frary Dining Hall in support of raising wages for Pomona kitchen staff.
The rally followed a recent contract negotiation meeting between representatives from Pomona’s dining hall workers union and members of Pomona’s Human Resources team, which ended in what some meeting attendees described as a “lowball” offer from Pomona College.
Café 47 worker Aaron Archer said that workers are asking for a $28 minimum wage with a raise of $9.40 over the next year.
But during the meeting, managers counter-offered the workers’ request with a $2.40 raise over the next three years, Archer told TSL via message.
“All we’re asking for is just to be able to survive and live in Los Angeles County,” Archer told students during the rally. “We’re just trying to be able to survive and buy houses to not have to live 30-40 miles away.”
“All we’re asking for is just to be able to survive and live in Los Angeles County.”
Natasha Wong PZ ’23 who was present at the meeting told TSL that HR’s counteroffer was “a huge slap in the face.” She said managers at Pomona told workers that raises were not allocated in this year’s budget.
“I think everyone kind of left that room being like, ‘Well, we can’t negotiate when there’s such a big gap between what we are asking for and what they offer,’” Wong said. “There’s no meeting in the middle with 80 cents versus [$9.40]. That’s just a joke.”
Wong added that students need to leverage their unique position in the fight for better conditions for workers.
“I think with any employer, but especially with a school like Pomona, they have a lot of money but they’re not going to want to give it up unless you make them give it up,” Wong told TSL.
Marie Ocampo, who has worked as a caterer and baker at Pomona for the past eight years, gave an emotional speech to the crowd, pausing to wipe tears from her eyes.
“It is so surreal that everybody’s here in support of us — it means so much to us as workers,” Ocampo told attendees of the rally. “We put a lot of thought and effort in how we cook your meals. All we’re asking for is that management recognizes that and that they see that we are very skilled workers and not ‘unskilled’ in the way that they make us feel.”
She added that a lot of staff members work six days a week, sometimes double shifts, just to make ends meet.
Rolando Araiza has worked at Pomona’s dining hall for 15 years and was present during Pomona dining’s first union contract negotiations. He told students at the rally that after HR’s counter-offer, workers felt like the college didn’t care about them.
“There’s a lot of reasons why we want this change,” Araiza said. “But the reality is that the college has not taken us into consideration … but that’s why we’re really here, because they’re not playing fair with us at the negotiation table, and we’re telling them here to take us seriously.”
David D’Souza PO ’24 helped spread the word about the rally via social media after dining hall workers let him know about the wage negotiations.
“Pomona basically gave [workers] a spit in the face,” D’Souza told TSL. “Know [the workers’] names. These are people that you see every day — you probably see them more than most of your friends.”
Speaking to students at the rally, D’Souza said he was blown away by the number of people that showed up for the event on Monday.
“This is not a favor we’re doing for them. Because these are people that are members of our family. If one person is hurt, everyone is hurting,” D’Souza said. “So we’re fighting for them, but we’re also fighting for us because they’re a part of our families.”
Francisco Villaseñor PO ’25, an organizer for the Claremont Student Worker Alliance, introduced each speaker at the rally and let attendees know cold water bottles were available.
“Each and every single day, the workers here put food on our plates,” he said in his speech. “Yet they have to go home and not know if they can make ends meet for their own family. They want to be able to take care of their family. They want to be able to put their own kids through college.”
Villaseñor echoed D’Souza’s sentiments.
“We’re not doing this because we’re students and they’re workers. We’re doing this because, at the end of the day, our fights are all connected,” he said.
“We’re doing this because, at the end of the day, our fights are all connected.”
Another CSWA organizer, Isabela Piedrahita PZ ’23, urged students to continue supporting workers in their fight after the rally.
“These workers are the backbone of these colleges, and they deserve nothing but the living wages they are asking for and they are fighting for,” Piedrahita said. “Will the students show up for them as they show up for us? Are we going to stand by them today, tomorrow and the next day when they call on us for support and solidarity?”
Following speeches given by both workers and students, the rally marched from Frary Dining Hall to Frank Dining Hall before finishing up at the Smith Campus Center.
Many people held signs provided by UNITE HERE Local 11 that said Pomona dining hall staff demand and deserve “Dignity and Respect,” “[A] Fair Contract Now,” and “A Living Wage.” Others, like Mikayla Kidd PO ’24, held a handmade sign that said “Do Better Pig-mona.”
“I think it’s sick to not pay people livable wages when we have a billion dollar endowment, so I’m here to support them today and [for] however long it takes,” Kidd told TSL. “Show up for your workers, take care of your people.”
Angel Yuan PO ’25 and Uma Kaler PO ’25 marched side by side in support of worker’s rights.
“A lot of the workers are POC, they’re often overlooked, they’re taken advantage of and the institution benefits off of their labor,” Yuan said. “The fact that [Pomona is] lowballing them is embarrassing for the institution, and it’s just completely disrespectful to the workers considering how much they do for us and for everyone.”
“This school wouldn’t be the same without them,” Kaler added.
Yuan and Kaler said that they were proud of the rally’s turnout but that the 5Cs can and should do even better.
Along the marching route, students and workers chanted “sí, se puede” or “yes, we can” and “el pueblo unido, jamás será vencido,” which in translation means “the people united can never be divided.”
Current students weren’t the only ones to attend the rally, either — alumni showed up as well.
As an organizing director from UNITE HERE Local 11 assigned to the Claremont Colleges, Noel Rodriguez PO ’89 told TSL that “the last few years have been really tough on all workers, but especially workers in hospitality.”
“A lot of the workers have had to get several jobs, work tons of overtime, just to pay the rent and pay their bills,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s really courageous what the workers are doing.”
Rodriguez choked up in between words when he told TSL he was on campus ten years ago, supporting workers during their original union campaign.
“The college fired 17 workers [after they] checked documents. It was very hard, and we still remember that, so the college needs to do right by the workers,” Rodriguez said. “And more than that, they need to take leadership and set a standard and lead the way that Pomona College wants to be a leader.”
Rodriguez encouraged students to continue the work of the rally by joining 5C alumni working in organizing and non-profits after graduation. He continued to echo student and worker sentiment when it came to the college’s response to the union’s proposed raise.
“They embarrassed themselves and really offended the workers and the community with their offer. I think they need to try again. Come back and try again,” Rodriguez concluded.
Also present at the rally were members from Pitzer’s new union who emphasized the need for 5C workers to stand in solidarity with each other.
Pomona College spokesperson Mark Kendall declined to answer questions on Monday evening regarding the contract negotiation meetings as they are ongoing.
“We believe it is better not to comment directly on terms and content of the discussions while the process is underway. We deeply appreciate the dedication and talent of the dining and catering team,” he said via email. “As an institution of higher learning, we strive to provide excellent wages paired with a highly competitive benefits program to support dining and catering employees.”
The rally comes amid a rise in labor union organizing nationwide, including at the 5Cs. Honnold-Mudd Library staff unionized last semester, while for the first time in recent memory the colleges recognized Labor Day as a holiday on the academic calendar.
Siena Swift is a Politics major at Pomona College in the class of 2023.