Where are the PZ 3? Wins, losses and the fight still to come

On February 7, 2023, a delegation organized and led by the Claremont Student Worker Alliance (CSWA) confronted Pitzer administration about the firing of the PZ 3. (Courtesy: Mara Halpern)

When UNITE HERE! Local 11 representatives Natasha Wong and Noel Rodriguez informed fired workers Stephanie Smith, Alexis Ongpoy and Kevin Ayala that they had been offered jobs on May 11, the news spread quickly throughout the Claremont community. The offers of employment for the former workers, known as the PZ 3, followed months-long organizing efforts from students and workers alike. The Claremont Student Worker Alliance (CSWA), which advocated for the PZ 3 prior to their rehiring, canceled a demonstration scheduled for Pitzer College’s 2023 commencement ceremony “in good faith” and shared their excitement about the job offers on social media.

“The boss will ALWAYS act like they are winning until they lose,” the post said. “Organizing means fighting — even when it’s hard, when it doesn’t feel good, and when it’s scary.”

Smith, Ongpoy and Ayala allege they were terminated from their positions in retaliation for expressing union support by Pitzer’s subcontracted dining service, Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), last December.

Over a month after the news of their supposed rehiring hit Claremont, however, circumstances are less straightforward than they initially seemed, and Pitzer has still not publicly confirmed any information related to the job offers. 

“Pitzer, BAMCO and Unite HERE are continuing discussions surrounding these former BAMCO employees and have not yet reached an agreement,” Deanna Caballero, associate vice president of human resources, said in an email to TSL.

According to Rodriguez, Pitzer’s administration wants the workers to start over as new hires rather than assuming previous positions of seniority, creating tension around policies Rodriguez believes are “punitive and discriminatory.”

The provisional verbal agreement, according to Rodriguez, states that Ptizer will hire the three workers directly as line servers in McConnell Dining Hall in the fall and BAMCO will grant them half-back pay — 50 percent of the wages they would have earned during their time of unemployment.

Pitzer has not yet agreed to give the workers seniority or allow them to forgo a three-month probationary period, according to Rodriguez. This means that the time worked prior to termination will be void, and they will be considered new employees upon their return to McConnell in the fall. 

However, the Union will not drop their Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs) until the PZ 3 are given a contract that ensures seniority, Rodriguez said. UNITE HERE! Local 11 has filed three ULPs since Pitzer’s dining hall staff unionized in August 2022, all alleging that Pitzer has engaged in unlawful union-busting tactics.

“Pitzer refuses to recognize their time worked,” Rodriguez said, believing the three workers were fired illegally for expressing union support. “They should not be penalized by having to repeat a probationary period or losing their seniority.”

As well as concerns about having to undergo a probationary period, Smith said she is disappointed that BAMCO is not providing the workers full back pay. Referring to her initial decision to participate in student-run demonstrations, Smith said she wanted to fight the college’s ability to “arbitrarily take people’s livelihoods away from them.”

“Why can’t you make me whole? Why can’t we get all of our money paid back to make us whole?” Smith asked. “You did us wrong, and we’ve been struggling ever since then.”

During the period of unemployment for Smith and Ongpoy, each faced financial and personal challenges due to job loss. Smith emphasized that without the financial support of her children she would be “underwater.” Ongpoy, who made $21 an hour at Pitzer before being laid off, makes $15.75 an hour at her current job. 

“Right now I’m living paycheck to paycheck, so it’s been hard for me to save money,” Ongpoy said. “I take care of my mom as well, so going through this financial struggle while also dealing with something very personal has been a challenge on its own.”

Rodriguez said he remains shocked by the Pitzer administration’s reaction to union organizing, but similarly to the PZ 3, feels grateful for the recent potential job offers.

“It’s really baffling to me why it took Pitzer so long, but I’m glad they eventually did the right thing,” Rodriguez said. “I really think a lot of it had to do with the students and strikers.”

According to CSWA organizer Francisco Villaseñor PO ’25, news of the rehiring offers was met by students and workers with excitement and disbelief. 

“It was so beautiful and affirming to see how many people took time out of their day to support and be engaged in the fight in any way that they were, whether it was passing out flyers or showing up on the picket line,” Villaseñor said. “Every single person that was a part of this campaign is what got it across the finish line.”

Jessica Shen-Wachter SC ’24 said that this win exemplified “the power of militant, principled student organizing.” She also noted that participating in labor efforts at the University of La Verne and Whittier College throughout the semester gave CSWA confidence in their ability to influence Pitzer’s labor practices.

“We ended up being [at Whittier] the day [the workers] found out that the school was going to settle after they went on strike for a month,” Shen-Wachter said. “They had been striking everyday with no indication that they were making any progress, and then one day, the school just folded. Thinking about how those folks were on the picket line all day everyday, it was like, ‘okay, if they can do that, we can do a boycott-picket for a meal period.’”

When asked about the influence of student action on Pitzer’s decision to form an agreement with the Union regarding the PZ 3, Caballero said that the college is “influenced by the desire to do what is best for our staff within all legal boundaries, and the belief that amicable resolution and compromise are the preferred route in this situation.”

Both Smith and Ongpoy expressed deep gratitude for Claremont students’ support of dining hall staff in their fight for fair labor practices.

“The support we got from all those kids … my heart just exploded,” Smith said. “These kids are awesome. I was blown away. It made me re-love humanity.”

Mariana Duran and Nhi Nguyen contributed reporting.

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