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This food fight is personal

Helping some Pomona College workers form a union is more than an academic exercise.

April 14, 2010|By Daniela Carrillo

My crash course in labor organizing began with a phone call from a friend on a recent Sunday night inviting me to sign a confidential manifesto: a petition to allow food service workers at my college to form a union in an expedited manner. More than 100 Pomona College students were secretly planning to accompany workers into the president's office the next morning to present the demands.

The dining hall workers wanted this, my friend assured me, and 90% had signed the petition. These were people I had come to know in my four years as a Pomona student. I saw them every day and chatted with them in Spanish as they served three meals a day and an evening snack. I believed in a living wage. I wanted workers to be treated with respect. So I signed on with a sense of giddy joy, pleased to be part of a clandestine campaign to do good.

Things seemed very different the next morning. We chanted "Si, se puede" and donned orange armbands -- but at the dining hall where my group assembled, no workers showed up to march. Student organizers assured us the workers supported the action but were afraid. I felt my stomach drop as I wondered -- whose idea was this really?

I spotted a worker on the sidelines, a woman I'd come to know through conversations at breakfast. She often talks with pride about her son, a business major at Chaffey College. Her customary cheerful demeanor had been replaced by concern. "You see that manager over there? She doesn't look too happy," she said worriedly. After the last union organizing effort in 2000, several food service workers were laid off during the summer. The reality hit me: This woman needed her job. Were we, the students, putting her -- and her son's college education -- at greater risk?

For most of my classmates, this was almost an academic exercise, a demonstration of support for workers whose lives they could know little about. For me, it was much more personal. When I talk with dining hall workers, I see my parents' struggles reflected in their stories. I watched my father get up at 5 a.m. and return home at 8 p.m. with calloused hands and bloodshot eyes after long days at construction jobs. I guided my mother through essays for her GED class, helping her translate Spanish thoughts into English words. I will never forget the look on my parents' faces when I graduated from high school, and when I got accepted into Pomona College.

Four years later, I was determined to help the food service workers, but I was also acutely aware of the stakes as I marched into the president's office to deliver the petitions. I wore the orange armband all afternoon, though I worried: Did workers realize the risk? Did they still support the action? What had we really accomplished?

Over the following days, I found some answers. The student committee's website, workersforjustice.org, posted interviews with workers, explaining why they wanted a union and offering statistics to back up their complaints -- low wages, unpaid hours, dangerous conditions, workplace accidents. One of the workers speaking out was Don, whom I chatted with most nights at evening snack. We exchanged stories about Chicago, our hometown, where we each had grown up in a house full of women. We talked about playing the card game kemps, and what he prepares for holiday dinners.

Now Don was talking about things I had not known. He had received only a 25-cent raise in the last six years. He had no say in his hours or working conditions. He had been forced to work a schedule that prevented him from taking the community college classes that he hoped would be his path to becoming a chef. I saw Don at a rally, and he thanked me for coming to show support. My act seemed small in comparison with his courage in publicly campaigning for a union.

Pomona is not alone in having students involved in advocating for the rights of workers. At Hunter and Sarah Lawrence colleges in New York, students have supported recent union campaigns by food service workers. Boycotts of college dining halls across the country helped pressure companies to increase wages for Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes. At Harvard University, students opposed the college's plan to balance its budget by laying off the lowest-paid workers, arguing that janitors, technicians and food service workers were important to the college's educational mission and that the cuts should be spread among faculty and administration.

I'm grateful for the spacious dorms, nutritious food and luxurious quality of life, but wary that the Pomona College bubble bestows a sense of entitlement. College officials endorse the student committee that holds "worker appreciation days," but those token efforts serve mainly to pat students on the back for taking initiative. Pomona boasts that its mission is to prepare students "for lives of personal fulfillment and social responsibility in a global context" -- but asks us to suspend that sense of responsibility until we leave the campus. I call that hypocrisy.

I have doubts about the outcome of the current union drive, given the administration's staunch resistance. I wonder if a small independent union can even succeed. But there has already been one significant accomplishment. The 68 food service workers have become visible, not just to the handful of students like myself who come from similar backgrounds but to hundreds who used to pass through the food lines every day with no thought about the workers' lives. The dialogue on campus has generated appreciation for their role in providing for students and faculty, and a commitment to their right to decent working conditions, dignity and respect. Workers have voiced their grievances and also their dreams, fragile hopes easily crushed by financial and emotional burdens.

It is up to those of us with a stake in the future of Pomona -- parents, alumni and students -- to make sure that does not happen.

Daniela Carrillo is a senior at Pomona College.

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