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August 6, 2023

Pitzer workers fired for taking a discarded couch reinstated after delegations, union advocacy

“This was an old student's couch that we took...we are not criminals,” Vazquez said.

Undercurrents staff
Gregorio Reyes, second from right, and Jose "Pepe" Vazquez, right, pose for a photo with coworkers and a union organizer before a delegation on June 22. Courtesy of student organizer who asked to remain anonymous to avoid hiring discrimination

After firing Gregorio Reyes and Jose “Pepe” Vazquez on June 2 for taking home a couch from the college’s ReRoom, a collection of items that students donate to at the end of the academic year to be reused the next year, Unite Here! Local 11 and Pitzer College announced in a joint statement on the week of July 10 that the workers would be reinstated following “open and heartfelt conversations” between the workers, the school and union representatives.

The reinstatement followed a month of delegations by students and workers to administrators, including one in which organizers delivered a petition with over 300 signatures calling the decisions an “extreme overreaction and an abuse of power.” It came two months after the college offered to rehire three subcontracted dining workers who were terminated after expressing support for Unite Here.

According to Vazquez, the couch that he and Reyes took had already been discarded outdoors for three weeks by the time they took it. A coworker had told Vazquez that the couch would be thrown away due to rain damage, he said.

“Me and [Reyes], we said, if it’s gonna be trash, then we could find a nicer place to put it. He said, well back [home], I could use it. So we took it home,” Vazquez said.

The ReRoom sells most of its donated items at the beginning of the next academic year, with the revenue donated to “support students and student sustainability projects”, according to Pitzer’s website. The website indicates that the couch would have been sold for at most $40.

Pitzer management suspended Vazquez and Reyes on May 26 before terminating them on June 2. The decision was unexpected given the workers’ good relationships with students, coworkers and even managers, said Tommy Morales, a Pitzer maintenance worker.

Both Vazquez and Reyes were longtime employees of Pitzer, having worked as building attendants for seventeen and seven years respectively.

According to Vazquez, during a post-termination meeting, an HR representative accused Vazquez of lying about his daughter’s autism, which he brought up while pleading his case. When asked to confirm Vazquez’s account of events, a Pitzer spokesperson provided a statement from Vice President and COO Laura Troendle declining to comment.

Vazquez said that he felt that a warning would have been fair, but “it was wrong that we didn’t get a second chance.”

“This was an old student’s couch that we took,” he said. “We are not criminals. We deserve to be treated with respect.”

On June 9, a delegation of around a dozen students and workers attempted to speak with the Human Resources office in support of the two workers, but found the office empty.

“From what I understand, [HR] was given a heads up,” Morales said. “They turned the lights off and locked the doors. It’s typical behavior if they know we’re coming.”

Delegations continued weekly, met with varying degrees of responsiveness from Human Resource representatives.

Members of the Claremont Student Worker Alliance organized a mutual aid drive to support Vazquez and Reyes following their termination and continuing through their rehiring. Vazquez had the extra financial need of medical care for his daughter. Though they were rehired, neither received back pay for their month of unemployment.

Initially, CSWA reached out to people of a petition for the workers’ rehiring, raising around $3000.

Later CSWA ran an art sale of pieces offered by community members including students and other workers, advertising items ranging from prints to crocheted pillows to candles on the Instagram page. The sale raised an additional $500.

In follow-up interviews, Vazquez and Reyes expressed gratitude for the community support they received.

“Without everyone that was there to give us a hand, without the union, we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now,” Vazquez said.

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Thanks for reading Undercurrents

Undercurrents reports on labor, Palestine liberation, prison abolition and other community organizing at and around the Claremont Colleges.

Issue 1 / Spring 2023

Setting the Standard

How Pomona workers won a historic $25 minimum wage; a new union in Claremont; Tony Hoang on organizing

Read issue 1