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Pomona Firings Show the Paradox of Immigrant Labor Organizing

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As the New York Times tells it, the firing of 16 Pomona College dining hall staff over alleged documentation violations appears to be a story about the harsh policies facing America's undocumented workers. But it is also a story about labor, and the growing difficulty of organizing for improvement in working conditions among those most vulnerable to exploitation. The Pomona workers' situation illustrates the need not only for humane reforms in immigration policy, but the need for sensible national labor policies generally, beginning with a revival of the moribund Employee Free Choice Act.

Understanding the firings requires understanding the tense labor climate of Pomona College during the last few years. The troubles did not begin in November, when the college summarily eliminated a group of veteran workers over their employment paperwork, or in the months previous, when the college announced it was hiring white-shoe law firm Sidley Austin to review immigration statuses. In fact, disputes between the college and its dining staff had been going on for over a decade, with the college persistently being accused by its workers of "disrespect, understaffing, inadequate medical care, and unfair firing policies" as well as unpredictable hours and mistreatment by management. Several attempts had been made at unionization before the founding by staff of Workers for Justice in 2010. Since then, the WFJ organization has been holding rallies, strikes, and boycotts in an attempt to gain recognition.

The College has acknowledged some of the complaints against it. "I cannot guarantee [abuses of overtime pay] never happened," college President David Oxtoby said. Administrators also introduced some reforms in response, such as guaranteeing a full year's-worth of work and raising wages. But at each stage, workers have had to fight hard for their gains. The college has repeatedly been accused of using intimidation tactics to stop the effort. In 2010, President Oxtoby sent a message to the school questioning "whether a union is necessary," and reminding employees of the privileges they enjoyed. Now, the National Labor Relations Board has issued the college with a formal complaint arising out of a policy banning dining hall workers from talking to students, introduced after students began to help coordinate the unionization drive.

And so when the firings came, it was hardly surprising to those who had been following the campaign. Predictably, the college has vigorously denied any connection between the dismissals and the dining hall workers' push. Yet the investigation and firings were conveniently timed. In the months just prior, Workers for Justice had rejected the college's proposal for a union election in which the administration would exercise only "limited neutrality." Furthermore, Sidley Austin, the law firm that investigated workers' immigration documents, specializes in union-busting, advertising on its website that "for clients who desire to remain union-free, we advise on pro-active steps to reduce the likelihood of union organizing drives and enhance the likelihood of defeating any campaigns that are initiated."

The Pomona College firings illustrate the core dilemma faced by contemporary organizers: those with the greatest need for unionization are also those with the least bargaining power, who have little recourse when retaliation occurs. With the constant threat of dismissal and deportation looming, all incentives on undocumented workers are toward keeping one's head down and tolerating even gross abuses.

Some organizing success is nevertheless possible. In his book Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market, Brooklyn College professor Immanuel Ness cites the inspiring unionization struggles of Mexican greengrocers and West African supermarket deliverymen in New York City during the late 1990's. But without reviving the national discussion on sensible labor policy, these efforts will involve almost impossible upward climbs.

In 2009, President Obama told the AFL-CIO in that "we will pass the Employee Free Choice Act." Since then, the Act has been buried, and passage becomes an unlikelier prospect with every passing session. Yet its necessity for working people has not diminished. One of the reasons the Pomona workers faced such difficulty in their attempt to collectively bargain was the NLRB's drawn-out and convoluted election process. The Pomona workers had pushed repeatedly for the kind of "card check" balloting that would have been codified in the EFCA, but were met with unwavering opposition by college administrators.

Other protections could also have helped in Pomona. Employers who fire organizing workers should have a greater burden to prove that the firing was unrelated, so that Pomona would have faced a presumptive labor practice violation over the dismissals. And greater deference should be given to employee allegations of harassment and intimidation, which abounded at Pomona but did not rise to the level sufficient to sustain a NLRB complaint.

Fixing immigration and fixing labor are inseparable. Immigration reform could give increasing freedom to workers to organize without fear, but without vigorous protections on organizing, employers still hold all the cards.