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Class Struggle in Claremont

by Claremont Solidarity Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2010 at 2:19 PM
claremontsolidairty +at+ riseup +dot+ net

Food service workers at Pomona College in Claremont, CA are fighting to organize an independent union. Claremont Solidarity fights with them, against labor exploitation and the corporatization of the university.

Partnership! Well, labor and capital may be partners in theory, but they are enemies in fact. – JOHN L. LEWIS; President, United Mine Workers of America; 1936

If you contract out, union-bust, or otherwise make it impossible for workers and students to have an organized voice, you don’t shut them up, you just get collective bargaining by riot. – ELAINE BERNARD; Director, Harvard Law School Labor & Worklife Program; 2002

Pomona College is the site of active class struggle. The food service workers of Pomona College are now in open conflict with the corporate administration of Pomona College over their attempts to organize an independent union. They fight for dignity, justice and respect. Their employer, Pomona College, seeks only the ability to continue its exploitative practices. The College rejects even their basic demand for an agreement against intimidation. We, as Claremont Solidarity, stand with the workers, and against the interests of capital and the corporate university.

On Monday, March 1, 150 students and workers entered the office of David Oxtoby, President of Pomona College, to deliver their demands for a fair unionization process to him. Hundreds of signed petitions were stacked in Oxtoby’s hands, petitions signed by 90% of the food service workers at Pomona College, demanding that Pomona College agree to a card check neutrality agreement with the dining hall workers. If the College were to accept this card check neutrality agreement, they would pledge to not engage in any anti-union intimidation of workers and recognize the workers’ union as soon as a majority have signed union authorization cards. On Saturday, March 6, workers came forward to speak to students, addressing a rally of more than 400 students assembled in the rain, speaking to their situation and efforts at creating a union.

The Pomona dining hall workers are organizing to establish an independent union in order to collectively fight for a contract and better working conditions. In the Pomona College dining halls, where workers are denied year-round employment, where more than 80% report having been injured on the job, where workers are at-will employee and are routinely fired for being worked to the point where injuries prevent them working any more, where decades of employment provides only the opportunity for decades of poverty-level wages, where legally required breaks have been denied with uniform consistency for years, where the managers compel workers to perform unpaid labor off the clock, and above all, where workers have been robbed of their power, their voice, and their dignity. To the administration, they are merely part of the faceless human capital that greases the wheels of the educational institution, regardless of the fact that they contribute far more to the College than the comfortably positioned PR office bureaucrat who makes certain that every letter published by the College uses the approved font, or even the faculty member who teaches students how to continue reproducing our oppressive social relations

Pomona College is the second wealthiest liberal arts college in the country, with an endowment of .8 billion. An endowment of ,160,000 per student, with a tuition of ,000, and Pomona College pays its dining hall workers as little as an hour. With the lack of reliable work that the College offers, many workers – who tend to be the primary breadwinners for their families – come out making between ,000 and ,000 per year. Pomona College’s endowment has grown by 240% over the past 10 years. What does that vast increase in wealth mean for the workers? It means absolutely nothing; wages have been stagnant for decades, just keeping up with inflation and lagging behind the cost of living. No matter how much money Pomona College has, it will pay its employees as little as it can get away with.

After years of paternalistic negotiations, after bureaucratic do-nothing committees, after proposals for an ombudsman, after a failed unionization campaign with an outside union, after years of proper channels and no improvement, the dining hall workers are certain that the only means to gain dignity and respect at their work is to organize and create their own union.

The workers have chosen to create their own independent, worker-controlled union and to not relinquish control to a self-interested outside union. They have been failed by the national unions in the past and now they have made complete autonomy and local control an absolute condition of any union organizing. It will be difficult for an independent union of a few dozen workers and scant resources to challenge the billion dollar corporation that is Pomona College, but with student solidarity it is possible, and it may be preferable to a few dozen workers challenging a union that either outright ignores workers who aren’t in thousand-person bargaining groups, or seeks ‘mutually beneficial partnerships’ with employers.

The response from the College administration to all of this? President Oxtoby decalres his support of workers’ right to unionize! Simultaneously he rejects all of their demands and refuses to negotiate on the issue of card check neutrality. Oxtoby will allow only for talk of a unionization process that follows the model of National Labor Relations Board vote, a process that is the graveyard of democracy and unionization attempts. Oxtoby demands that the College reserve the right to intimidate its workers, to retaliate against organizing workers, to delay the unionization vote for years, and to appeal any unionization vote for yet more years. These are the points of difference between the process demanded by the workers and the process offered by the College. Unless the College was planning on utilizing some of these anti-union tactics allowed under the NLRB process then there would be no reason in rejecting the card check process.

Oxtoby has revealed the true anti-worker position of the College in statements that deny any need for workers to be concerned with the benevolent, protective employment of the College, even going so far as to call workers ‘naïve’ in an interview with the campus newspaper:

"The assumption, often, with a union is that everything that you have now you will keep and you will get more — you will have all of the channels of communication and ways of working with the college which we’ve developed over the years, I think that’s not correct. I think it’s a little naive.”

The workers know the liberal bullshit of the administration when they see it, and have responded with a hardening commitment to the fair process that 90% of them had originally demanded, in direct rejection of the anti-worker NLRB process that Oxtoby holds to. The orange armbands are staying on in the kitchens of Pomona College.

Meanwhile, out of the public arena, the College has already forced the dining hall workers to attend anti-union meetings where they illegally promised concessions if the workers stop their organizing efforts (covering up their illegal activities with the blatant lie that they implemented these concessions months ago, without any of the workers noticing). The deans, so fond of the liberal college activist who poses no challenge to their own comfort and security, sat one student organizer down to threaten him with the loss of his job with the College if he continued devoting his efforts to the union.

Alongside the administration, numerous supposedly leftist faculty at Pomona College have belittled the workers’ attempts at forming an independent union, apparently unable to believe that workers are capable of organizing themselves without the leadership of decayed professors or bureaucratic outside unions. To them, we repeat the words one worker spoke to the faculty: “We’re not asking for your advice, we’re asking for your support.” At the very least, 90% of the workers have decided that this the course of action they want to take, and the only justifiable action for us to take is to respect their decisions and lend them our solidarity, not our paternalism.

It is no surprise that an elite liberal arts college supposedly committed to social responsibility responds to the organization of its workers in the same fashion as any profit-driven corporation, because that is exactly what the modern college has become through a long process of corporatization. The only structural difference remaining between college and corporation is that as ‘non-profits’ colleges need make only enough revenue to break even, a difference in scale only. The condition of the workers at Pomona College is a result of this corporatization of the college; a result of transformation of Pomona College into Pomona College, Inc.

As students at a corporate college we are now mere consumers of the education commodity. So workers are mere human capital, rather than dignified and respected members of our community. They are expected to have the same relationship with the College community as McDonalds fry cooks have with their customers. What should be a community of equals who are valued for their contributions to the collective education of everyone in our community is instead debased to a rude system of commodities, consumers, producers and exploitation.

Our friends from Direct Action Claremont have participated in occupations at the public universities, and we see this struggle at Pomona College as an extension of that struggle. Both the battle for public education and the unionization efforts at Pomona College are manifestations of resistance to the neo-liberal corporate model of higher education that simultaneously dispossesses students of an education, and workers of dignified labor.

Claremont Solidarity exists to escalate the class struggle at Pomona College. The interests of the workers and the interests of the corporate College are directly opposed to each other; one seeks justice and fairness, the other seeks profit through exploitation. The College will not choose through its own enlightenment to act against its economic interest and allow the workers to organize. It can only be forced to do such. In order to realize progress, we must create a situation of conflict, where the power of the administration is challenged by the power of the workers. And we must make certain at the same time that students understand this conflict, and choose to cast their lots on the side of the workers. We cannot wait for this situation of open class conflict to emerge; time is the College’s most potent weapon, and they intend to delay justice until it is terminally denied. Pomona College will attempt to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to blow over; we pledge that this storm shall only strengthen until the workers at Pomona College have justice.

We pledge an escalating campaign of confrontational action, as this is the only way to force the College to recognize the workers’ demands. Pomona College cannot run as though everything is normal when the College is refusing to consider the demands of 90% of its food service workers. There is an active labor conflict in Claremont, and we will not let the College forget it. No business as usual!

Claremont Solidarity
Audacity! Audacity! Ever more audacity!

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