At 10am on the morning of March 1st, petitions from 90% of the food service workers at Pomona College (one of America's Top Ten Liberal Arts Colleges, according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings) were delivered to the office of the College President, demanding that the college agree to allow them a card-check unionization process, without opposition, discrimination, or intimidation. The demonstration was a startling display of strength by the college's workers, who report gross mistreatment on the part of the college.
Only about 7% of American private-sector employees are members of a union, and union membership has been steadily declining over the years. 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.
The need for the right to organize could not be more stark. On the website set up by the Pomona workers, numerous heartbreaking video testimonials recount the intolerable working conditions enforced by the college. Workers report forced unpaid overtime, denial of leave for serious injuries, and outrageously low pay. Similar conditions affect college dining hall workers nationwide, and clashes over unfair treatment have also taken place at Penn State, Emory, and Brown, among others.
But in spite of the workers' courage, their efforts require public support in order to succeed.
Prior attempts at a fair unionization process at the college have been marked by systematic suppression and intimidation. A 2000 push for a card-check agreement resulted in the then-food supplier Aramark attaching a threatening letter to worker paychecks, which ended with the ominous warning: "As you decide whether or not to sign a union card, I hope you will think about how much there is to lose and that the union can guarantee nothing to gain." (Aramark is the dining service provider at 600 colleges and prep schools across the country).
Still, the new effort is marked by an unprecedented vigor, and its chances of success seem strong. After all, the workers are not specifically requesting a union, but merely a fair process for deciding whether to have one. A card-check neutrality agreement is an obtainable goal, and is a far less far less tortuous route to fair standards than the drawn-out NLRB unionization process.
But while the Pomona workers have a remarkably strong campaign, until the agreement is signed they have no real legal protection. Intimidation can occur with few consequences, and it tends to. According to information collected by Cornell University labor statistician Kate Bronfenbrenner, "25 percent of employers fire at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns, 75% of employers hire union-busting "consultants" to help defeat organizing drives, and 92% 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 achieving a basic standard of workplace fairness therefore requires a vast amount of dedication and risk on the part of workers.
The Pomona workers' unionization attempt is bold and promising, but without public and political support, it may merely be one more tragic portion of America's brutal labor history. Since the President and Congress have proven themselves utterly incapable of passing even basic protections for working people, we owe efforts like the Pomona workers' all the attention and support we can give. Whether or not Pomona gives in will depend on whether the college is able to quietly ignore the demands or not. We mustn't let it. After all, Pomona's workers are merely trying to guarantee a democratic process for deciding their representation, that will not be subject to harassment or retribution. And so, until President Obama fulfills his delayed promise, we must stand by those that are willing to put their jobs on the line for the sake of justice.