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Labor

January 29, 2023

Pomona workers win $7.50 raise after strike and months of union negotiations

“The college put more money on the table immediately after they recognized that the workforce was really united,” said union rep Arun Ramakrishna PZ ’22.

Samson Zhang
Joelle Williams for Undercurrents

After months of negotiations, Pomona dining workers agreed to a new four-year contract with a cumulative $7.50 raise on Jan. 18. The contract is the fourth the workers have negotiated under representation by the union UNITE HERE! Local 11.

The final contract was won only after months of organizing and actions, including a labor day rally in September, a strike over Family Weekend in October and Pitzer College dining and facilities workers’ certification of union representation in December.

Though the raise is short of the $9.40 that union negotiators initially asked for, workers told Undercurrents that they’re happy about how the contract will change their lives, allowing them to ease off of taking overtime shifts just to get by.

“Do I believe that people should be making even more than this? Yeah, absolutely,” said Arun Ramakrishna PZ ’22, who works as a UNITE HERE! Local 11 representative for Pomona’s union. “But that’s just how settlements work and I think that we can still walk away from this deal feeling happy with the types of gains that we’ve made and the types of strides that we’ve made in terms of our organization.”

Graphic by Samson Zhang for Undercurrents
Graphic by Samson Zhang for Undercurrents

“They’re not playing fair with us at the negotiation table”

Workers’ demands for wage increases to keep up with dramatically increased cost of living, especially from food and gas prices, drove the negotiations, which hit an impasse almost as soon as they started after the workers’ previous three-year contract expired in July 2022.

“If you just go to the grocery store, eggs are $8 a dozen, milk’s expensive, food in general — it’s just astronomical,” said Edward Mac, a lead cook at Frary who has worked at Pomona since 2012 and member of the negotiating committee. “Gas is expensive, and people commute from 30 miles away.”

From the first round of negotiations on Aug. 17, 2022, there had been a large gap between the negotiating committee’s demand — an immediate $9.40 raise to a $28 minimum wage — and the Pomona College administration’s counter-offer of a $2.40 raise over three years.

In response, workers organized a Labor Day rally on Sept. 5, 2022 in coordination with the Claremont Student Worker Alliance, which drew hundreds of students despite the 103-degree weather that day.

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“The reality is that the college has not taken us into consideration,” Rolando Araiza, who has worked at Pomona’s dining halls for 15 years, said at the rally, according to The Student Life. “That’s why we’re really here, because they’re not playing fair with us at the negotiation table, and we’re telling them here to take us seriously.”

At a second round of negotiations on Sept. 20, 2022, Pomona College offered a $4.80 raise over four years. The negotiating committee rejected the offer and told The Student Life that they would consider organizing a strike if the next round of negotiations did not result in an agreement.

When the third round on Sept. 30, 2022 only saw a bump to a $5.40 raise over the same time period, the negotiating committee called for a strike vote on Oct. 20, 2022.

“We proposed some offers that Pomona didn’t accept. We were very far away from each other. And we, the committee, decided to hold a strike vote,” Mac told Undercurrents.

Strike!

On Oct. 24, workers announced that they would strike on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, the Friday and Saturday of Pomona’s Family Weekend. Workers also called for students to boycott all Pomona dining services during the strike, and join picket lines in front of dining halls from 6 AM to 7 PM on both days.

That weekend, hundreds of students joined workers marching and chanting in picket lines in front of Frank, Frary and Oldenborg dining halls, as well as in front of food trucks and catering services brought in by the college. More than two-thirds of dining staff participated, Ramakrishna told The Student Life.

Members of CSWA garnered support from parents who were on campus for the weekend, while over 50 Pomona faculty members signed on to a letter supporting workers before the strike.

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“I think the administration didn’t think we were gonna go on strike. I think the administration didn’t think we would have an overwhelming community response where the students would boycott the dining halls,” Mac said.

Weeks of student and worker organizing made the strike possible.

On Oct. 11, 2022, over 150 students attended a “Strike 101” event organized by CSWA, where student organizers gave a presentation explaining what strikes and picket lines are, and the historical context and implications of a potential strike at Pomona.

More than 150 people gathered at Walker Beach to attend CSWA’s Strike 101 event. Photo by Samson Zhang for Undercurrents

CSWA members also took shifts clipboarding in dining halls, getting the contact info of over a thousand students across the Claremont Colleges who expressed their support for Pomona workers.

Worker organization took the form of conversations “day in and day out,” Ramakrishna told Undercurrents.

“We have a lot of really strong leaders that have worked at Pomona for a really long time, and they spent every single day talking to their coworkers, addressing fears that they may have, addressing questions, concerns, whatever it is,” he said.

The strike vote ended up being a show of strength: on Oct. 20, workers voted 84-7 — 92 percent — in favor of the strike.

The result countered Pomona College Vice President, Chief Operating Officer and Treasurer Jeff Roth’s narrative that the fight was being pushed onto workers by leaders without their support, as he claimed at an Associated Students of Pomona College meeting an hour after the ballots were counted. ASPC passed a resolution expressing support for workers and the strike that same meeting.

“Very few people were in opposition to the strike. They obviously felt that having a strike would be the only way Pomona College would listen to us,” Mac said.

Workers celebrate vote in favor of strike after votes are counted. Photo by Samson Zhang for Undercurrents

After the strike, “Pomona College could see that we’re serious, we’re not gonna back down, we’re gonna try to reach our goal,” said Hector Melendrez, a utility worker at Frary.

The administration’s response was “shown at the negotiation table,” Ramakrishna said, with an offer of a $6 raise over four years given at a Nov. 9 contract negotiation meeting.

“The college put more money on the table immediately after they recognized that the workforce was really united,” Ramakrishna said.

It still wasn’t enough: the union rejected the offer and continued to demand a $9.40 raise. But soon negotiations were interrupted by a different union fight altogether.

Final show of strength from Pitzer certification vote

Pomona’s contract fight didn’t happen in isolation. In August 2022 Pitzer College dining and facilities workers won union recognition via card check and began contract negotiations, but were interrupted by a decertification petition — which forced an election that would require another majority vote by workers for the union to stay — that organizers allege were the result of deliberate union busting by the college.

As the election pulled near, Pomona workers put a pause to their own negotiations to support Pitzer workers, visiting them and hosting walkthroughs of Pomona work environments to explain the benefits that come with unionization.

“I personally went to a couple of Pitzer employees’ houses to do house visits,” said Mac, who was involved in the initial formation of Pomona’s union after being hired as one of the replacements for the 17 workers, many union leaders, that the college fired in a 2012 immigration sweep. “I wanted to make sure Pitzer was gonna get the union, you know? They deserve to have what we have.”

Pomona administrators seemed to be watching the vote, too, Melendrez said. “They just sat on a table, really, and pretty much didn’t have anything to offer…they were waiting maybe to see what was gonna happen at Pitzer.”

On Dec. 9, 2022, with several Pomona workers standing nearby with union organizers and students in solidarity, Pitzer workers voted to certify their union by a narrow margin.

Students, union organizers and Pomona workers gather in support of Pitzer workers before union certification vote. Photo courtesy of Mara Halpern

Pitzer workers’ successful repulsion of the decertification drive was a “turning point” in Pomona workers’ negotiations, Ramakrishna said.

The very next day, Roth reached out to schedule the next negotiation date — a change from the usual pattern of the union making the request.

Pomona workers were prepared to build off of the momentum of the Pitzer win to keep fighting.

“I thought they were gonna come up another 50 cents or something stupid…I had very low expectations of Pomona putting in more money,” Mac said.

Instead, at this meeting Roth finally made the offer — a $1.50 bump over the $6 raise that negotiations had left off at before the Pitzer vote — that the union accepted.

“I think that [the strike] coupled with the win at Pitzer College showed how much strength that the union has and that organized labor has at the 5Cs,” Ramakrisha said.

Less overtime, more education — “It’s gonna affect my life”

Workers will receive the raise in increments: a $2.50 raise, provided retroactively, between July 1, 2022 and July 1, 2023; a $1.75 raise in July 2024, and another in July 2025; and finally a $1.50 raise given in two parts in 2025-26.

The new contract also establishes greater benefits and worker protections for dining employees, such as a new requirement for Pomona to accommodate pregnant workers by allowing for role changes or increased break time.

Under the new contract, Pomona will also be required to pay into a union legal plan that offers free legal services for workers for navigating immigration law and other areas.

Finally, the contract supports workers who are looking to learn new skills through its establishment of a hospitality training fund paid for by Pomona. Workers seeking to gain new skills can attend a hospitality training school free of cost, allowing for the pursuit of additional classifications and thus widening employment opportunities.

Though the contract was short of the $9.40 initially demanded, workers celebrated the win and the ways that the new contract will change their lives.

Shireen Aslan, a cashier at Frary dining hall, said she used to frequently work overtime and wanted to pursue a masters degree, but couldn’t afford to do so.

“I’m so happy. [The contract] was a great step for us,” Aslan said. “Next year in July, the minimum wage is gonna be $25, and this is what we wanted. That’s gonna affect a lot of things…it’s gonna affect my life.”

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Melendrez also said the raise would help him pursue further education.

“I’m trying to go back to school. Online something, trade school or something, you know, I’m still young…something like health department inspector,” he said.

Mac said he will be making a thousand dollars a week by July this year, something he only dreamt of before. “I guess I didn’t dream that hard,” he joked.

He told Undercurrents he was thinking of taking a vacation to Brazil, or buying a Corvette sports car.

“Besides the necessities, the eggs and things like that, [this raise] allowed me to be able to live a little bit and be able to think about things that I could have, that I could buy that I didn’t think that I could afford before,” he said. “I never thought in my years that I’d actually be able to even afford a Corvette, you know?”

While working at Pomona, Mac obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Analysis from Pitzer College and a master’s in management from Claremont Graduate University. While he hopes to make a career pivot eventually, he said that the new contract made him decide to stay at Pomona longer.

“I really like the contract, I really like the benefits, I like my commute, I like everything about the job. So for at least the next four years, I’m gonna leave my degree on the shelf,” he said.

Ramakrishna emphasized that, aside from increased wages, the negotiation process has strengthened the workers’ unity and power.

“People will remember going through this struggle with their coworkers and what it was for. And I think that will make sure that people will keep in mind how powerful they are,” he told Undercurrents.

Aslan, who has worked at Pomona for six years, noted that union strength-building has been going on for years.

“Before [these negotiations] I think some of the workers didn’t know a lot of things about the union and about their rights. But now they are more knowledgeable about the union, about the contract. This is the difference from the first day I worked here and now,” she told Undercurrents.

Aslan also hopes that union wins at Pomona will boost unionization efforts at other workplaces in the Inland Empire, such as the warehouse her brother works at.

“My brother works in a warehouse and they don’t have a union. Honestly they have a bad situation because, if they made one mistake, [the company] directly fired them,” she said. “It’s not fair, you know…they needed somebody to protect them.”

And as for the missing $1.90 between the union’s first demands and the contract?

“We’ll fight next time for more, three years from now,” said Melendrez.

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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