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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Stand with the Pomona dining hall workers

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Opinions

At Pomona College in Claremont, California, 90 percent of dining hall workers have signed petitions demanding a card-check neutrality agreement from the school’s administration. The agreement would mean that workers could freely form a union by signing union cards, without being subject to discrimination or intimidation by the college.

This display of unity and force by the Pomona workers is more remarkable than it may seem. Only about seven percent of American private-sector employees are members of a union, and union membership has been steadily declining over the years. This is partly due to intimidation tactics by employers. According to Cornell University labor statistician Kate Bronfenbrenner, 25 percent of employers fire one or more workers for union activity during organizing campaigns, 75 percent of employers hire union-busting “consultants” to help defeat organizing drives, and 92 percent of employers compel their workforce to attend mandatory “captive audience” meetings to hear and view anti-union propaganda.”

Furthermore, over half of employers threaten to report undocumented workers to Immigration & Customs Enforcement if they persist in union activity. Even managing to successfully unify requires a vast amount of dedication and risk on the part of workers.

Yet the need for the right to organize could not be starker. Dining hall workers nationwide are underpaid and often subject to gross mistreatment, and clashes over working conditions have occurred Penn State, Emory, Brown, and many other colleges and universities. On their website, the Pomona workers offer heartbreaking testimony about the intolerable practices of the management and administration. There are reports of outrageously low pay, denial of leave for serious injuries, and forced unpaid overtime.

Predictably, the administration has opposed the workers’ request. Even though the workers are asking for a fair election process, rather than for a union, the college’s president has refused to sign the neutrality agreement, and now Pomona’s food service employees must risk their jobs and undergo a difficult fight before even being able to vote on whether to have a union.

The situation didn’t need to be this way. During his campaign, President Obama promised that the Employee Free Choice Act, which would guarantee the procedure that the Pomona workers are having to fight for, would become law under his administration. As of a year in, the bill has been quietly shelved, while the recession has given employers more power than ever to mistreat workers without consequence, thanks to a workforce increasingly desperate to cling to their jobs.

It is outrageous that working people must face such vigorous opposition in their quest for justice.

All employees should have the ability to form unions if desired. Whether the negotiations of the future unions would succeed is another matter, but employees must at least be represented so that such negotiations can take place.

Which brings me to us: Until President Obama fulfills his delayed promise, it is the duty of all college students to stand by workers seeking their rights. The snows of Waltham may be 3,000 miles from the palms of Claremont, but during those rare times when college workers brave the dangers and fight for better conditions, every student in America should be united in supporting them. They are the people who spend their lives feeding us as we loaf, read, and party. At the very least, we owe them their dignity and a democratic unionization process.

While the Pomona effort is promising, and its participants are tireless in the pursuit of their goals, support from students is essential.

Repercussions against workers and the brushing aside of demands are only possible if students remain indifferent to the issue. If all of us pay attention, and do whatever we can to assist college workers when they demand fair conditions, we will be able to keep school administrations from ignoring the voices of those they exploit.