Months Long Struggle for Immigrant Rights at Pomona College Gains Attention Nationwide
For years, employees at the private, prestigious Pomona College in southern California had tried to unionize in an effort to secure fair wages. Each time, they met with difficulty from college administrators and struggled to advance their cause.
But the most recent time has caused the most controversy.
This time, the Pomona College Board of Trustees—headed by Goldman Sachs executive Paul Efron—received what they called a “credible” letter from an employee outside of the administration claiming that the school’s administration was engaging in illegal hiring practices by employing undocumented workers.
The board turned the situation over to Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm which advertises on its website that it aids “clients who desire to remain union-free.” The firm says it “advises on pro-active steps to reduce the likelihood of union organizing drives and enhance the likelihood of defeating any campaigns that are initiated.”
After a review, Sidley Austin’s team found 84 employee files with insufficient documentation. In November 2011, college officials asked those workers to meet with its human-resources department and get their paperwork in order.
But 17 employees—16 of them food-service workers—could not provide proper documentation and were ultimately fired less than a month later.
The firings came after a two-year union drive by Workers For Justice, an organization of Pomona’s dining hall workers that joined forces with Unite Here, a union representing food service workers in the Los Angeles area.
Some former employees see the college's actions as a union-busting tactic, but Pomona College President David Oxtoby maintains that the unionization efforts in no way influenced the college’s decision to investigate the original complaint.
Prior to the firings, which garnered national attention, the workers had filed a suit with the National Labor Relations Board against Pomona College. The complaint regards a dining hall supervisor who reportedly told an employee that he did not receive a promotion because he wore a union button while at work. But, the supervisor allegedly told him, he’d be promoted if he stopped wearing it. The complaint also claims that workers were prohibited from talking to students while on their break.
“The National Labor Relations Board is taking this up as a complaint and saying the college is coercing and restraining employees and violating their rights,” Jessica Choy, a United Here spokesperson told The Daily Bulletin. “This is a pretty serious allegation.”
“The National Labor Relations Act under section 8. (a)(3) says that workers who organize a union or who are trying to organize a union cannot be legally fired or retaliated against in other ways for their union organizing activity,” Pomona History Department Chair Victor Silverman said. "The National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the enforcement of this law, and the courts, have said that section 8. (a)(3) applies to checking immigration status during organizing drives.”
The college recently settled its case with the labor board, in part.
Mark Wood, a spokesman for Pomona College, said the college ended its policy preventing employees from talking to students in November.
“We're fine with settling the policy one, and we agreed it was a mistake.” Wood went on to tell The Daily Bulletin, “But the other one we can't do that because we don't think we've done anything wrong.”
Wood said the policy was intended to prevent workers from being interrupted by students, but it was instead interpreted as keeping employees from talking to students.
To many around campus—students and faculty alike—it’s the immigration issues and the college’s response that are the most troubling.
“You'd think that if any place was going to be a safe haven for immigrants, it would be at colleges and universities, but that doesn't seem to be the case at Pomona College,” Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says in a Unite Here mini-documentary detailing the Pomona situation. “They've joined in that wave of anti-immigrant hysteria.”
According to college statistics, immigrants make up a sizeable portion of the school’s students and faculty and have become vocal supporters of the fired workers.
In an op-ed piece published in The Student Life, Pomona’s main student newspaper, the editorial board backed the employee. They wrote:
While some alumni have even threatened to stop donating to the school, the students and faculty of Pomona College have been the most vocal in opposition.
Some have considered discouraging prospective freshman from enrolling, while some began a fast in an attempt to force the school to reconsider. Others held rallies, boycotted the college’s dining halls, and held a vigil to “protest the threatened termination of workers, to call for an end to the re-verification of work documents, and to demand open channels of communication for all members of the community.”
During one event, 15 students and faculty members were arrested for blocking an intersection as an act of civil disobedience.
Officials from Pomona and members of the Board of Trustees continue to insist that it was a timely coincidence for the letter to arrive during the rise of the workers’ unionization effort. But many in the Pomona community disagree, despite any evidence to support their claims.
Pomona’s Media Relations Director, Cynthia Peters, wrote to The Student Life, Pomona College’s newspaper: “Given that the allegations in this complaint were specific, concerned a violation of law, and were directed against President Oxtoby's administration, the Board leadership had an obligation to investigate. Regardless of whether the government becomes interested in this matter, the law clearly requires employers to be in compliance with the I-9 rules.”
The university also insists that if they had not acted on the letter, the school would have been breaking the law.
Michael Teter, a Pomona College graduate and current University of Utah associate professor of Law, has argued against these claims. Teter and others who support the workers argue that the board relied on unsupported and incomplete risk assessments, and that the college’s actions lack adequate justification for their response.
An Outside Look
It’s difficult for many activists, and even for Pomona College students, to take a step back from this situation and offer an objective perspective.
“We agree that the College and some of its employees have been placed in a difficult and unfortunate situation, which we wish could have been avoided,” Efron said, echoing the sentiments of those most closely involved in the situation.
While it may appear as if the union efforts and the firings were linked together in an effort to bust up the union, there’s virtually no evidence that that’s the case—and it’s unlikely that the college would have followed this path in an attempt to stop the unionization of its employees.
Nathan Robinson, a Yale University law student, wrote on the Huffington Post that the Pomona issue highlights some problems with the unionization movement.
“Fixing immigration and fixing labor are inseparable,” he wrote. “Immigration reform could give increasing freedom to workers to organize without fear, but without vigorous protections on organizing, employers still hold all the cards.”
To many, including some government officials, the insufficient treatment of the workers regardless of their documentation is upsetting.
Perhaps Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) put it best recently, when said the fired workers “put their sweat blood and tears into this college, and they deserve better.”
Leor Reef is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.