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Claremont Courier - A Local Nonprofit Newsroom

Rally aims to protect rights of undocumented workers

Cesar Chavez’s legacy of fighting for workers’ equality sparked action in hundreds of demonstrators in Claremont Friday, who marched around the Claremont Colleges to show continued support for the equal rights of immigrant workers.

Friday’s rally was one of numerous demonstrations over the past year in support of Pomona College Dining Workers, who are fighting for their chance to unionize and feel they have been “bullied” by their employer.  

Sponsored by numerous local civil and union rights groups, the rally provided opportunity to continue to spread their message of injustice as they call for Pomona College to remain neutral and allow opportunity for unionization.  

“We want to celebrate [Cesar Chavez’s] legacy, and honor that legacy by standing up and fighting back for immigrant workers here in Pomona,” said spokesperson Leigh Shelton of Unite Here Local 11. “It is a sad reminder that the same injustices are still being suffered today.”

Pomona College officials on hand for the event say they are supportive of their students’ right to protest.

“Pomona College is a strong supporter of free and respectful discourse for Pomona College students, staff and faculty, and in the community,” said Cynthia Peters, Pomona College’s director of media relations in a statement.

Similar to Mr. Chavez’s nonviolent, but steadfast tactics, Friday’s rally molded firmness with community spirit in its approach to civil rights. The happy strum of mariachi music played invitationally as participants gathered in Shelton Park at the start of the event. The smell of sizzling carne asada permeated the surrounding area.

Young and old gathered in a semicircle, some sporting matching red rally shirts, others carrying signs, in displays of unity.

“I feel empowered,” said Anna Valenzuela of Diamond Bar, a “proud Latina woman,” of her first rally experience. “To me, injustice and equality are our basic rights as a human being. Those providing services to our community should not just be pushed aside.”

Despite the friendly atmosphere, and savory free food, the message was kept strong and firm. From Shelton Park, hundreds of protesters gathered 4 by 4, shouting and marching down Bonita Avenue and over to College Avenue in front of Bridges Auditorium for the second half of the demonstration.

“Pomona, escucha, estamos se la lucha!” the crowd cried. “Pomona, listen, we are fighting!”

In addition to supporting equal rights for immigrant workers, the crowds gathered to show their support for 17 Pomona College employees, 16 of which were dining hall workers, who were fired in December. Less than a month prior, 84 Pomona College employees, with improper documentation, received a letter from Pomona College President David Oxtoby notifying they would lose their jobs if they did not provide proper the necessary paperwork. The 17 were unable to provide documentation within the allotted time, and immediately let go.  

“I felt humiliation,” shared Juan Gonzalez of losing his job. Mr. Gonzalez had worked for Pomona College Dining Services for 10 years. “But just because I was fired does not mean that I will give up. We are continuing even stronger in this fight.”

Ms. Peters stated that Pomona College agrees to rehire the workers if they provide the authorized documents by June 30. She also stated that the college has offered a proposal to the workers including a pledge of neutrality, during which time they can decide among their membership if they want to unionize.

“Our employees have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to be represented by a union, and that they should be able to do so in an atmosphere free from intimidation,” Ms. Peters said.

She upholds the college does not oppose unionization for dining services staff, and the timing of the firings was merely coincidental.

“The timing was very unfortunate. Some people drew a connection, but in this case, it was incorrect,” Ms. Peters said. “The 2 issues were unrelated. The only reason for the audit was because of a complaint to the board of trustees.”

Demonstrators like Irv Hershenbaum, however, feel the issue is arguable.

“How come their immigration status all of a sudden becomes an issue after they have worked there for so many years?” Mr. Hershenbaum, first vice president of United Farm Workers, asked. “They need to treat people right regardless of their status.”

Laura Enriquez and Sandra Hamada, Pomona College alumnae, made the trip from Los Angeles to add their support for the workers, and shared disappointment with their alma mater.

“The fact that they are treating workers so badly makes me kind of ashamed that I went to Pomona,” Ms. Enriquez said. “They have really opposing policies. They support undocumented students, but they don’t support undocumented workers.”

“It’s really important for alumni to really step up and participate. Even though we are no longer students, we still have a stake in the college. My eyes are still on Pomona,” Ms. Hamada added, with nods of agreement from Ms. Enriquez and friend Lizette Cejas, a Pitzer College alumna. “Shame on Pomona.”

—Beth Hartnett

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