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Who Wins in Pomona Union Battle?

April 5, 2010

Nick Hurwitz
Who Wins in Pomona Union Battle?

Recent patrons of Pomona's dining halls may have noticed the bright orange armbands sported by staff and students alike. They may also have noticed orange posters pasted to walls depicting a raised arm holding a whisk, subtitled in bold script:  "Workers for Justice." The demonstration represents the center of one of the largest controversies on Pomona’s campus this year – the attempt by dining hall staff to form a union. The roadblock to union-forming stems from a argument over which type of voting process will decide the issue. The staff-only group Workers For Justice has proposed a card check system, while Pomona’s administration favors the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process. The NLRB is an independent agency tasked with organizing union elections.  At its best, this system is the most democratic for the cause. But it can also be vulnerable to employer intimidation and long delays. Card check neutrality is a voting process that bypasses the NLRB, instantly forming a union when over 50% of employees vote in favor. This system is faster and less likely to be dominated by employers, but it instead can lead to intimidation by union organizers. To date, neither side has been willing to compromise on the voting method.

Though the distinction has not always been clear, there are in fact two organizations working in consort. The first is Workers for Justice (WFJ), a dining hall staff group pushing for a union through the card check neutrality procedure and non-intimidation agreement. Their student counterpart is Students in Solidarity with Workers for Justice (SSWJ), a student organization led by student organizers.

I find myself sympathizing deeply with the goals of SSWJ. Yet even as a signer of the SSWJ petition, I am worried by their rhetoric and methods. The group advocates an all-or-nothing approach and refuses to compromise with the administration on any of their key issues. While their dedication is certainly admirable, not everyone who supports the workers takes such a hard line. By making the cause 'with-us-or-against-us', Students for Solidarity forces many students, myself included, to either side with their demands or to leave the issue behind.

As an organization, we should credit them for the effectiveness of their campaign. In their underlying goal to provide a voice for the staff workers, they have undeniably succeeded. The organization has been covered in local newspapers and on several prominent blogs including the Huffington Post.

Still, many students feel that the administration is being unfairly vilified. While the administration has been unwilling to compromise on the card check issue, they have been receptive to many of the concerns and demands of WFJ. President Oxtoby has written three major emails to the Pomona community responding to concerns, and clarifying his administration's position regarding the unionization process. This week, he plans on sitting down with dining hall staff to discuss staff concerns. Because of this apparent openness by the administration, many students worry that if the rhetoric and tactics used by Students in Solidarity do not change, the same alienation of the college community may result. In particular, I refer to the SSWJ’s stance against compromise on card check neutrality.

I am not arguing that the workers themselves should necessarily compromise on the issue. Maria R. Garcia, a Pomona dining hall worker for ten years, was one of the first members of staff to unite behind the proposed union. She believes that card check is the only solution. She said, “With NLRB they get all the power. It could go on for years. With the card check, it’s our voices, it’s our decisions.” There have been many reported instances of poor treatment of staff workers, including injury neglect and unpaid overtime. Garcia worries that without a union and card check, workers will be forced out of the conversation in the future. “We can’t be doing this every year. They need to give us a chance to work things out.”

Many on campus are also concerned about the seeming lack of division between Workers for Justice, the staff group, and Student in Solidarity with Workers for Justice. The distinction has gone unnoticed by many, including the recent article “Working For Workers” in the Claremont Port Side. This confusion has many consequences, not the least of which is that were the two groups the same, it might appear as though the students were exerting too much influence upon the workers' decisions. Sam Gordon PO’11, media spokesman for Students in Solidarity, admits issues like these weren’t discussed appropriately in first wave of publicity but remains optimistic that the organization's message and role will be more clearly defined.

“We were a little frantic and didn’t know the nuances of what we needed to do," said Gordon. "Since spring break, we’ve had the opportunity to refocus and we’ve been a lot better about making the distinction between students' roles and workers' roles.”

So what needs to happen? Both Pomona’s administration and SSWJ have roles to play. The administration can gain a great deal of credibility by admitting that the NLRB method of union creation has flaws, and explaining why, in spite of these, they believe that it is still the best method in these circumstances. SSWJ should continue their move away from direct representation of workers and towards their newly clarified goal of supporting the workers in their actions without necessarily taking a stance on the unionization process. Privately, several members of SSWJ have said that they believe that the NLRB process, if initiated at Pomona would likely form a union in a reasonable time.

As one member who wished to remain anonymous stated: “The workers have every right to demand the card check process, and we ought to let them have the voice to do so, but we can stand behind the staff without necessarily standing behind everything they say.”

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