Food staff confronts Pomona College administration

Fifty people—union reps, Pomona College dining hall workers and students showing solidarity—marched to the Pomona administration office Tuesday at 3 p.m. to confront President David Oxtoby and Vice President and Treasurer Karen L. Sisson about what they say is unfair treatment.

It was a heated atmosphere.

The demonstrators demanded respect and a redress of what they say are longstanding frustrations at the workplace. They were also protesting what they assert is a direct reprisal against protected concerted action.

Tensions between dining hall staff and management have been rising for some time.

Workers say they’re often missing ingredients and equipment needed to prepare foods advertised on dining hall menus. Employees also said when a dining hall staffer is out sick or on leave, they aren’t replaced, leaving their coworkers with an extra share of work.

The situation came to a head this Monday, when 11 dining hall workers, including Pomona College Lead Cook Edward Mac, were written up for infractions such as “stoppage of work.” Each of those who were issued a written warning took part in a political action last Thursday.

Ms. Sisson told the COURIER that the initial meeting’s tone was very aggressive, particularly when it came to the demeanor of a union organizer who accompanied the dining hall workers. “Their business representative was yelling at the top of her voice. She was very strident,” she said of Daisy Monterroso.

Ms. Monterroso, a representative of Unite Here Local 11—an organization representing 23,000 hotel, restaurant, college and airport workers statewide—also did much of the taking during this Tuesday’s action. At times, she translated the comments of Spanish-speaking Pomona College staffers.

Ms. Monterroso told Mr. Oxtoby and Ms. Sisson the delegation was seeking assurance that the Pomona College administration was unaware of the write-ups and didn’t support the disciplinary action.

Ms. Sisson told the group crowded into the president’s office that the write-ups had nothing to do with censuring political action. Instead, employees failed to follow procedure.

After hearing Ms. Sisson’s explanation, Ms. Monterroso said workers and the union must conclude, with disappointment, that Pomona College administration endorses punishing staffers for political action. “They say the fish stinks from the head down,” she said.

The workers say the write-ups had everything to do with their organizing for change. “We went on our lunch hour. There was no stoppage of work,” Marie Ocampo, a baker in the Frary Dining Hall, said.

Ms. Ocampo was part of the April 20 delegation, but was not among those censured. She believes she escaped reprimand because she wasn’t on campus Monday when the write-ups were distributed.

Several employees said the policy regarding lunch breaks has historically been loosely enforced, allowing for flexibility.

For instance, Mr. Mac’s specified time to break for lunch is 4:15 p.m. He says he can’t afford to stop work then, because it’s only 45 minutes before the 5 p.m. dinner crowd shows up. Instead, he generally breaks at 3 p.m., the same time he went to speak to administration last week.

Workers and union reps are convinced that those written up were purposely punished. They indicated to Ms. Sisson and Mr. Oxtoby, who were standing outside of the president’s office, that the write-ups were in direct violation of federal law.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) says employees have the right “to join together to advance their interests as employees” and it’s unlawful for an employer to “interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights.”

Section 8 details some of the things that constitute interference, including disciplining employees because of their protected, concerted activities.

In a later interview, Ms. Sisson asserted that the college supports employees’ rights to share their concerns.

“The issue was that not every employee had checked in with their manager to say they were leaving. Those that did were not written up,” she said.

“The reason people were written up was for not following procedures. Stations were left virtually unmanned. It created an unsafe environment for students.”

The employees insist they were following de facto policy, and some say there has been an unusual amount of scrutiny regarding clocking in and break times since last Thursday.

According to Mr. Mac, Unite Here local union 11 has either filed or is in the process of filing a suit against Pomona College with the NLRB.

It remains to be seen whether the dining hall workers and the Pomona College administration can settle their differences out of court. If there is legal wrangling, another stipulation of Section 8 may find its way into the workers’ case. Enforcing new or once unenforced rules could be considered a reprisal—if, and only if, it’s done to quell political dissent among workers.

As with many employee-employer disputes, there is a he-said, she-said quality to the conflict.

Ms. Sisson said the staffers and union reps failed to use an important mechanism for resolving issues. They failed to attend a Joint Labor Management Committee (JLMC) meeting scheduled for the afternoon of Friday, April 21.

“I had hoped they would attend so that we could have had the opportunity to discuss their issues more fully,” Ms. Sisson said in a later interview. “I believe they responded that the JLMC ‘wasn’t working.’

“The JLMC is attended by a neutral federal mediator to make sure all points of view are heard and to facilitate the resolution of complaints,” Ms. Sisson continued. “That meeting would have been a good opportunity for me to report on the two specific items mentioned on Thursday. This is important because the JLMC is the mechanism agreed to in the Collective Bargaining Agreement for resolving issues.  If workers and their representatives do not attend, it is very difficult to get things resolved.”

Ms. Monterosso was clear with Ms. Sisson on Tuesday, saying the staff and union had purposely opted not to attend the JLMC meeting. Mr. Mac later attributed their absence at the meeting to the fact that administration had dragged its heels in delivering some requested information. They got that information only a couple days before the meeting, he said, and they determined that was not enough time to properly review and respond to the information.

Mr. Oxtoby had a focused message, which he repeated more than once.

“We are committed to respect in the workplace. We are also committed to working with the union. We’d like to work with the union on the contract,” Mr. Oxtoby said.

Ms. Monterroso insisted the contract was breached the moment those 11 employees were written up because, according to the contract’s terms, workers should first receive coaching and counseling before being disciplined.

Whatever side, if any, is at fault, it’s apparent there’s a communication breakdown. Ms. Sisson told the COURIER that administration is, indeed, looking to address staff concerns.

Take the ingredient shortage, she said. The reason kitchen staff were short on ingredients is that a new computer program was causing certain things to “drop off” the list of needed items. Since last week’s delegation, they have began using a whiteboard on which the ingredients to be ordered are written. “We can then ask all employees if they see a problem with, or if they are in agreement with, what is on the white board.”

Ms. Sisson did not, however, mention that administration and management were working to address staff concerns at Tuesday’s meeting, which she said was a misstep on her part.

“I probably should have. Communication is very important,” she said. “But to think on your feet when there are 40 people in the room and they’re agitated and making accusations, it’s very hard.”

Tuesday’s gathering ended dramatically. Ms. Monterroso translated as one dining hall worker vented his feelings.

“The problem is we have a union and because of that they won’t let us work in peace,” he said. “Why do you hate us? We do the work of two people and you treat us like animals. I’m not asking for anything that is not mine. I’m asking for respect.”

Ms. Monterroso warned Mr. Oxtoby and Ms. Sisson that the crisis wasn’t over. She noted that last week’s delegation had been small and this week’s delegation was larger. The next time, she warned, there will be even more demonstrators. 

The protestors joined in chants of “Si, se puede” (yes, we can) and “No respect, no peace. No justice, no peace” before exiting the office.

—Sarah Torribio


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