Monday, March 1, 2010
CLAREMONT, California - The student movement made an unexpected move in solidarity with university employees in a large-scale action at Pomona College, a private institution and part of the Claremont consortium of colleges at the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Well over a hundred students joined with numerous employees of the three campus dining commons, other Pomona employees, and a few faculty members to deliver a petition to Pomona President Oxtoby.
The mobilization began in the morning, when students from Pitzer College assembled on their campus, while Pomona students gathered on theirs. At about ten, the two contingents converged behind the banner "Trabajadores Por Justicia", singing the union hymn "No nos moverán."
Students, arm-in-arm with workers, entered the president's office two-by-two to deliver the signed petition demanding a neutral card check process to form a union. This is the process that would be permitted in all workplaces if the much-hyped but now-stalled Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would have become law.
The petition read, in part, "An NLRB-administered election, which permits management to campaign against the Union on work-time and create a climate of fear in the workplace, is not free and fair." It went on to demand employer neutrality in the workers' decision to organize, and recognition of a majority-backed union.
Previous efforts to organize food service workers on the campus have been thwarted by intimidation, collaboration between the administration and upper-level bureaucrats from established unions and bribery-based decertification drives by management.
This time, however, the workers are seeking an independent union to collectively bargain in their interest. Over 90 percent of the food service workers signed the petition.
Forming an independent union is the first step toward justice for the workers, who complain of poor salaries, few opportunities for advancement, abuses such as disallowance of breaks and working off the clock, and underemployment.
"The salaries that we have are miserable," reports Maria R. Garcia, a Pomona food service worker. "I've been working here for ten years already. I started at $8.40, and now it's $10.65 [per hour]. Two years without a raise. The first year, they said I didn't qualify because I was pregnant, and I had an injury. Another thing, we work for seven-and-a-half months of the year. So how do you support a family?" She made it clear that it wasn't an issue of disliking the job. "We like working here; we love working here. But with these conditions, it's hard. They just make it worse every year."
The action, impressive for its size alone, is all the more remarkable in that the student/worker organizers were able to keep all of their plans secret from the Pomona administration, taking President Oxtoby completely by surprise.
Efforts were made to ensure that the message would reach its intended audience. According to one of the planners of the events, "one of our organizers, having been head sponsor of the Sponsor Program, had arranged to have a meeting about the Sponsor Program with President Oxtoby at ten o'clock today to make sure that Oxtoby was at his office."
The Sponsor Program is "a residential program through which all first-year students are housed with approximately 15 other first-years led by two sophomore sponsors," according to the college's website.
While the day's emphasis was definitely on the exploitation of workers, the student movement, which began in opposition to budget cuts and tuition hikes and has since expanded to question the growing privatization of public education, occupy and liberate student spaces, and demand liberatory (rather than neoliberal) education, formed the dramatic backdrop for the action, particularly in light of the multiple actions being planned for Thursday.
"Both what is happening at the UCs and what's happening at Pomona College right now is due to misguided attempts to balance budgets," explained Lucy Lombard, a senior International and Intercultural Studies major at Claremont.
"And attempts to turn the university into more of a corporation, which prioritizes balancing budgets over education, over the university's rightful place in society, which is to create new vision of society, of what society could become," added Christopher Wohlers, a senior Physics and Environmental Studies major.
While President Oxtoby smiled and politely thanked the petitioners as they piled the stacks of documents into his hands, he was unable to dissimulate his true emotions: several students and workers reported viewing his hands tremble as the signed forms mounted. One student organizer commented, "He realized that he's gonna have a fight ahead of him. If he wants to maintain business as usual at the university, he's going to have a difficult time doing it, and I think this morning he realized that he's gonna be a busy man."
Pitzer contingent march
Thumbs-up from worker
Students and workers unite
Outside the administration building
Outside President's office
A busy man