Working for Workers
In Unionization, Students Assume Primary Role — For Better or Worse
By Michelle Lynn Kahn
Editor-in-Chief, CMC ‘12
To many, the unionization process seems boring, like a real-life repeat of Norma Rae, sans Southern accents and Sally Field in booty shorts. But the latest political controversy at Pomona College has defied convention, pitting dining hall workers and their staunch student advocates against President David Oxtoby, a vilified personification of corporate America, and his administrative colleagues. Less than a month after Oxtoby first heard of the unionization attempt, the battle has already rattled the more activist Claremont Colleges. The situation is akin to Mortal Kombat, but with forks and knives instead of guns and swords.
To contextualize, last summer’s Employee Free Choice Act provides a useful lens for examining the situation at Pomona. Concealed amid pundits’ commentary on health care and cap-and-trade, the bill would change existing National Labor Relations Board procedure to force employers to recognize card-check bargaining in addition to secret ballot elections. Because the distinction is subtle, most have trouble grasping the differences between the methods: under current law, 30% of employees must sign cards to petition the NLRB to order a secret ballot election; under EFCA, a majority of signed cards would bypass the NLRB and automatically form a union. Facing immense opposition, the pro-union bill stalled in both houses.
Despite the issue’s complexity, the food service workers’ position is easy to describe in child’s terms: it is a “back-and-forth see-saw” or “merry-go-round” of attempting and failing to achieve change. That’s how Don Towns summarizes it. Towns, a middle-aged food service employee at Pomona, has an amiable and magnetizing personality that exudes jolliness. (Donning an “I heart America” sweatshirt, he proceeded to give this reporter a high-five and hug at the end of their interview.) Yet when he spoke at the March 6 rally outside Pomona’s Bridge’s Auditorium, his tone – sincere, somber, and imploring – was anything but jolly. For Towns and the vast majority of his food service coworkers, these past weeks marked the beginning of the public face of a long-term, uphill battle that they have been whipping up for six months.
Though Oxtoby first heard of the unionization push on February 28, Workers for Justice identifies a much longer timeline. According to the student organization, a committee of food service employees has been meeting weekly since October to discuss complaints and the prospect of an independent union. Towns confirmed, describing meetings divided along a language barrier – 75% of the workers, he estimates, are Latino. After separate English and Spanish meetings, the groups would “come together to share ideas.” While they initially invited two students to these meetings, workers maintain daily contact with student activists now.
On this point, the unionization push at Pomona differs entirely from the typical iteration – whereas union representatives tend to initiate and organize the push, student activists have assumed an integral role. Workers for Justice, created just days before the issue went public, has made unionizing food service workers via “card-check neutrality” its mission. Pomona junior Sam Gordon, who heads up the organization’s media apparatus, explained his commitment to the cause. “These are the people who cook three meals a day for me,” he says. “It’s such a luxury we are taking for granted… They are asking for something from us now.”
Gordon and his fellow activists have made impressive accomplishments in a short time. Most critically, they accompanied workers and some faculty into Oxtoby’s office and presented a petition, signed by 90% of the food service employees, demanding “card-check neutrality.” Oxtoby was skeptical. “The staff were never presented with a choice between a secret ballot vote and a card check process,” he told the Port Side, “so I question the statement that 90% of the workers prefer the latter.” The overwhelming presence of Workers for Justice makes the true intentions of the workers nebulous. Oxtoby asserts that a large group of students and a small number of faculty “may well have initiated the unionization effort.”
Still, Workers for Justice argues for the validity of the signatures they collected. “The student role is not a guidance role,” Gordon says. “It is more of a facilitation role, and to overstep that role is a really inappropriate thing.” As a faciliator, Workers for Justice has proven an invaluable resource for food service employees. Absent the time, technical skills, or political training to launch and maintain an effective media campaign, the workers have come to depend on Pomona students activists’ fervor and support for the cause.
Workers for Justice has divided student volunteers into several key committees: media, which includes both photos and videos and interfacing with members of the press; student organizing, responsible for gathering signatures from Pomona students and inputting information into databases; fundraising, which targets campus organizations and alumni to subsidize printing and material costs; visibility, charged with “painting the 5Cs orange” with posters, banners, armbands, and buttons; and web maintenance. On all counts, Workers for Justice has seen success. By spring break, they had collected the signatures of 40% of Pomona students and had landed favorable articles in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Los Angeles Independent Media Center, and Huffington Post. Gordon affirms, “We’ve done a lot with a little so far.”
Yet in an issue as divisive as unionization, where both sides cite the other’s intimidation as a key impediment to employees’ judgment, student activists must tread carefully. While Workers for Justice seeks to pressure Oxtoby from all sides, its central role has given the administration considerable ammunition. Oxtoby’s opposition to the card-check process lies in its susceptibility to worker and student intimidation. “In a small operation like Pomona College,” he argues, “where the staff know each other and know the students very well, it is hard to say ‘no’ to a request to sign a petition or a card.” So, even though Gordon says “workers are organizing workers, and students are organizing students,” administrative skepticism persists.
The food service workers, however, have proven much more vocal and substantive in their accusations of the administration’s intimidation attempts. A March 15 letter to Oxtoby accused Bob Robinson and Margie McKenna from the administration of holding “meetings with no prior notice… with the intention of dissuading us from forming a union.” Robinson responded to the allegations, telling the Port Side, “We felt it necessary to affirm our workers’ rights to non-intimidation.” Interestingly, Workers for Justice knew about these “impromptu” meetings and even discussed them at a March 7 meeting, the day before they occurred; a worker had notified them. Even stranger, though, is the decision to sign the workers’ March 15 letter “sincerely, Workers for Justice,” as if the student organization had drafted and sent it. Given these scenarios, what once seemed a calculated administrative scheme to undercut the unionization effort on the basis of student intimidation and overexertion now makes some sense.
Indeed, the unionization debate has pitted Workers for Justice against Oxtoby, relegating the workers themselves to a secondary role, necessary only as mouthpieces and personifications of a battle being fought in emails, editorials, and blog posts – far from the confines of the dining halls in which they toil for hours a day. While Workers for Justice has made immense strides toward their goals, in the long-term they should consider de-villifying Oxtoby and looking to compromise. Meanwhile, some workers, like Juan Gonzalez, have other options. “I’ve worked in the fields before,” he says, “but I want to work at Pomona.”