‘This is everybody’s success’: Pomona dining staff settles contract agreement with historic raises

On Oct. 28, 2022, students and staff went on strike to fight for higher wages for Pomona College dining workers. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

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This Jan. 18, an overwhelming majority of Pomona College dining hall employees voted to approve a bargaining agreement with a 36 percent wage increase over four years. The vote ended almost six months of labor organizing and negotiations with the college’s administration.

The new four-year contract gives dining and catering employees their largest wage increase since Pomona’s kitchen unionized in 2013 with the labor union UNITE HERE! Local 11, said cooks Edward Mac and Rubén Rodríguez, who are members of the union’s negotiations committee. 

“It’s not what we wanted in the beginning, but you know, that’s what they call a negotiation,” Rodríguez told TSL. “It’s so far, the best contract we [have] ever gotten.”

Along with a $7.50 wage increase allocated over four years, the contract establishes more benefits for the dining and catering staff, including increased protections for pregnant workers, according to UNITE HERE! representative Arun Ramakrishna PZ ’22. 

Pomona will also begin contributing to union funds that offer workers access to hospitality training and legal aid, according to a joint statement put out by Pomona and UNITE HERE! Some workers plan to use that legal aid to correct their immigration papers, Mac said. 

In alignment with the result of these negotiations, Pomona will soon roll out a new wage floor for all benefits-eligible staff positions at the college, Pomona Chief Operating Officer and Treasurer Jeff Roth announced in a Jan. 18 email to the community.

“Each year, choices are made to fund priorities and supporting our employees with strong wages and excellent benefits remains a budget priority,” Roth later told TSL via email. 

Throughout the negotiations period, Roth had said the raises then being requested by the dining union were “not a realistic demand” given the limits of the school’s yearly budget and questions of maintaining equity for all employees. 

However, he told TSL Jan. 22 this is no longer the case with the 36 percent raise settled in the current agreement.

“The new contract will not directly impact our future tuition rates or policies on drawing funds from the endowment to support the budget,” Roth said.

Mac, who has participated in three previous contract negotiations at Pomona, attributed the historically high wages and benefits settled in this agreement to the solidarity the dining union presented during negotiations.

“This contract negotiation was very different. There was more on the line,” Mac said. “Pomona had to pay more because we were demanding more. And we were demanding more because eggs are $8 a dozen at the grocery store right now. We went and we struck … That’s why they bought labor peace for four years.”

When negotiations for the dining hall union’s new contract began last August, workers asked for a $28 minimum wage with a $9.80 raise in the next year due to the inflationary pressures on the cost of housing, transportation and food. Pomona countered this initial ask with a $2.80 raise in four years.

The wide difference between the two parties prompted a labor day rally and two more negotiation meetings in September, which remained inconclusive. Protesting these failed negotiations, the dining union held a two-day strike during family weekend. Dining and catering staff picketed in front of the dining halls throughout the two days, alongside hundreds of Claremont Colleges students, professors and staff. 

By Jan. 13, during the second negotiations meeting after the strike, union representatives agreed to a 36 percent wage increase proposed by Pomona, Mac said. The wage increase was more than twice the administration’s initial counterproposal and will give all dining workers a $25 minimum wage by next summer. 

Although the raises settled on the contract are significantly higher than in the past, to Mac, the fact that prices have continued to soar in recent months means the new contract won’t completely alleviate financial pressures.

“It’s gonna make an impact for sure,” he said. “But unfortunately, everything is so expensive, you know, going to the grocery store is like a warzone … So I mean, [the contract is] better, but still there’s more that can be done.” 

Shireen Aslan, a Frary worker and member of the negotiations team, said the contract’s raises will help her better support her family and potentially give her time to pursue a Masters degree in the future. Now that negotiations are over, she has started taking online courses in UX Design, to further her understanding of the field. 

Ramakrishna said the contract with Pomona will set an example in the food and service industry in the Inland Empire.

“Other workers will be looking to this agreement kind of as a standard for what they will come to expect from their employers,” Ramakrishna told TSL. “So I think it’s a really good contract in terms of raising the bar for workers across the board.”

Aslan emphasized that the contract is a win not just for the workers but also for the students, faculty and staff who supported dining staff during negotiations.

“This success is not just our success,” Aslan told TSL. “This is everybody’s success.”

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