Pomona workers’ strike vote set for next week, students rally behind dining hall staff

Students gather at Walker Beach and watch at a presentation, titled "Strike 101."
The Strike 101 workshop hosted by CSWA mobilizes students to support ongoing union negotiations for dining hall staff. (Florence Pun • The Student Life)

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With no contractual agreement in sight, Pomona College dining hall workers set a vote for Oct. 20, which, if passed, will allow union organizers to call in a strike to protest for higher wages in their new contract.

Next week’s strike vote is “very likely to pass,” according to Benny Vargas, who works in the Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations’ kitchen and is involved in Pomona’s contract negotiations team. Vargas told TSL that an overwhelming majority of dining staff have already signed pledge cards to commit in favor of the vote. 

According to Rolando Araiza, who works at Frary Dining Hall, members of the dining union’s contract negotiation team called for the strike vote after two months of negotiating wage raises with Pomona’s administration, which consisted of three contract negotiation meetings along with a Labor Day rally that brought a show of support from students and faculty. 

Pomona administration fell short of workers’ wage increase demands in the latest contract negotiation meeting which took place Sept. 30, prompting union organizers to call for next week’s strike vote. In the meeting, the college opted for a $5.40 increase over four years — or $1.35 per year — while workers lowered their new asking wage to $8.80 over the next year, Arun Ramakrishna PZ ’22.5, a union organizer with the workers’ representative Unite Here! Local 11, told TSL. 

Originally, workers asked for a $28 an hour minimum wage through a raise of $9.40 over the next year, which Pomona counter-offered Aug. 17 with a $2.40 hourly raise.

Pomona’s Chief Operating Officer and Treasurer Jeff Roth told TSL the college’s newest offer was “substantial,” providing “historically high increases,” signaling “how serious we are about reaching a deal that benefits all dining employees and addresses their most important concerns.” 

“The dining team is an important part of our community, and our hope is that union negotiators will continue discussions to reach a multi-year agreement that benefits dining employees, their families and the wider community,” Roth said.

However, the union considers the gap between the college’s offer and workers’ needs is still too large, according to Ramakrishna.

“[The gap] brings us to where we’re at today, which is why workers are thinking of taking such a courageous and drastic action to put pressure on the college,” Ramakrishna said.

In the event of a strike, Roth said the college would “continue to treat every employee and member of the community with respect” and seek to provide multiple meal options for students each day.

“We anticipate that there will be some impact to the meal services we can provide for our students, faculty and staff,” Roth said.  

Meanwhile, Edward Mac, a dining hall worker who is a member of the union negotiation team, told TSL that the union has a relief fund for workers if they go on strike.

Additionally, Mac and Vargas pointed out that workers who go on lawful strikes, such as those for higher wages, are federally protected by the National Relations Labor Board, meaning they cannot be fired. 

Araiza said although not all workers want to go on strike, many are willing to do so if it means getting closer to the wages for which they are asking.

“I’m scared, but I also know what my right is,” Araiza said. “Federally, we’re protected — [Pomona] can’t subcontract us, and we work in a place where we have more support than any other work environment that you can think of. We have students, we have faculty, we got alumni [and] we got the community.” 

With a strike vote on the horizon, several student groups at the 5Cs have expressed solidarity with workers.

At an ASPC Senate meeting Thursday, Francisco Villaseñor PO ’25, an organizer for the Claremont Student Workers Alliance (CSWA), requested the student government issue a resolution supporting the dining hall workers should they choose to strike.

“It’s the least you can do,” Villaseñor said. 

After the Oct. 13 meeting, Pomona Student Body President Vera Berger PO ’24 sent an email to students with a proposed resolution “in support of the Pomona College Dining union’s fight for a universal wage increase.” ASPC will vote on whether to approve the resolution following input from student comment on Oct. 20, according to Berger.

At Pomona-Pitzer’s Oct. 8 cross country invite, some P-P athletes sported shirts and pins with slogans such as “Living wage for POM dining staff” and “support POM dining staff” during the race and awards ceremony, according to Colin Kirkpatrick PO ’24, who participated in the meet.

Students from CSWA also mobilized other 5C students, gathering contacts of those supporting the cause through clipboarding outside of Pomona’s dining hall and hosting two events open to the student community.

Janey Matejka SC ’24, who clipboarded outside Frary during Wednesday and Thursday lunch hours, said that three days in, CSWA collected the contact information of over 650 students “enthusiastic” about supporting workers.

CSWA organizers also hosted a Tuesday “Strike 101” teach-in event outside of Walker Lounge, where they gave a presentation to more than 100 students on what actions to take if a strike is eventually called. 

At the presentation, CSWA organizer Jessica Shen-Wachter SC ’24 urged those present to avoid eating at Pomona’s dining halls if a strike occurs, to apply pressure on administration. 

“We don’t know how open [Pomona’s dining halls] will be, but in the case that they are open, the biggest ask is to not eat any of them,” Shen-Wachter told attendees. “We’re lucky that we have four other dining halls where the workers will not be striking.”

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 also reminded students at the event that Pomona dining hall workers’ actions do not exist in a vacuum.

“Movements here send ripples,” Osman-Krinsky told students. “It’s no mistake that when Pitzer organized their union, we now have the momentum here at Pomona to fight for dining hall workers’ pay raises. There’s [..] organizing happening elsewhere in the Inland Empire and in LA County that we’re also tapped into. […] These things all feed off each other.” 

John Paul Ferrantino and Jake Chang contributed reporting.

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