The Claremont Portside: Unions, Rep. Chu, and Community Rally For Workers for Justice

From The Claremont Portside: Link to original article

By JEREMY MERRILL, JONATHAN RICE, AND JEANY LARSEN

“I love working at Pomona. Being here makes me feel a sense of possibility,” said Rolando Araiza, a food service worker at Pomona College. “All we have wanted was for our voices to be heard.”

But, Araiza said, “I never knew how hard it would be to have my voice heard, but the College does not want our voices to be heard.”

On Friday, workers, clergy, students and community members from Los Angeles and the Inland Empire rallied at Pomona in support of dining hall workers who, like Araiza, are seeking a union and in support of 17 workers who were fired in December after they were unable to show authorization to work in the United States.

In a fact sheet distributed by Pomona’s Director of Media Relations Cynthia Peters, Pomona says that it only re-audited employees’ work authorization documents because “a complaint was made […] alleging it was a policy of the President and administration not to verify work authorization documents as required by law.” Workers who had been hired prior to the start of Pomona President David Oxtoby’s tenure in 2003, were nevertheless asked to show their work authorization documents. Some of the fired workers had worked for Pomona for over twenty years.

Protesters march through Pomona’s campus.

Sonya Jimmons, a rally attendee affiliated with registered nurses union SEIU 121RN, does not believe Pomona’s explanation for the firings. “I know they are making an excuse,” she said. “It’s dishonest.”

Last Friday’s event, which was sponsored by area labor unions and civil rights groups, began at Shelton Park in the Claremont Village. After speeches, music and a chant of “¡Trabajo, sí! ¡Migra, no!” — Work, yes! Immigration enforcement, no! — at the park, ralliers marched along Bonita Ave. to Frank dining hall. Frank has been closed on weekends this semester because Pomona has been unable to staff it after having fired the workers.

At times, the march stretched for more than two blocks. By the Port Side’s estimate, there were more than 700 people participating at the beginning of the rally. Robin Rodriguez, an organizing director with UNITE HERE Local 11, also estimated 700 people.

After marching from Frank, ralliers marched past Bridges Auditorium and along Sixth St. to a “dining hall in the streets” on College Avenue.

Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11 Los Angeles began cooking food to serve to ralliers at 9:30 a.m., using a trailer grill which sat in the middle of the intersection of North College Way and Harrison Ave. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor paid for the supplies. The group had gotten a low price for the five hundred pounds of beef served, because all of the labor unions in LA cooperate, one of the chefs said.

Los Angeles union workers grill meat.

Many of the rally attendees were from Los Angeles-area labor unions. Mike DiGildo, of the United Steelworkers Local 675, explained his presence at the rally saying, “In injury to one is an injury to all” and that “If they’re stopping one worker, they’re stopping all of us.”

“Instead of doing the right thing and letting workers decide for themselves, they undertook this self-audit” and “created an environment of fear,” says Thomas Walsh, president of UNITE HERE Local 11. “So, it’s the opposite of what a college should be, an environment of openness, instead, an environment of fear and reprisals.”

“There’s still time for them to reverse course and declare themselves neutral for the remaining workers seeking a fair process to unionize. We hope they do that,” Walsh said.

Congresswoman Judy Chu also appeared at the rally. After redistricting takes effect in the 2012 elections, Chu will almost certainly represent Claremont in the U.S. House of Representatives. “I think it is unjust that they were fired,” she said, referring to the 17 fired workers. “I think it would be great to reinstate them. Let them live the life they had before, supporting their families and living the American dream.” She also described her efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which failed in the most recent session of Congress. Instead, she said, “That is the policy of the Obama administration to put deportation actions against the worst criminals among those who are undocumented.” “They are wasting their time on law-abiding people like these,” Chu concluded.

When asked if she could say one thing to President Oxtoby, Chu told the Port Side,  “I would say that these are workers who have served Pomona College very loyally, and please rehire them.”

On stage at the rally, Rep. Chu spoke about her support for the POWER Act, which would allow undocumented workers “who blow the whistle on employers who retaliate” to receive temporary “U visas” to stay in the United States.

CLUE-LA protesters hold up a banner outside Frank Hall.

Another organization sponsoring the rally was CLUE-LA — Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. Members carried a banner in the march that read “All religions believe in justice.”

“Jesus fought for workers and the dignity of all people,” said Father Peter O’Reilly, a Catholic priest and a member of CLUE-LA, which is an interfaith group.

“This generation of immigrants are experiencing the same struggle as my community’s immigrant base experienced when they came here. It’s worse now though,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, director of CLUE-LA, citing anti-immigrant laws.

“These are immigrants who want nothing more than to live the American dream,” he said. “These workers are a part of the struggle.”

In addition to Rep. Chu, people of faith and union workers, Claremont students, faculty and alumni participated in the rally. Pomona alumnus Scott Ratigan ‘90 described Pomona’s actions as a “PR catastrophe.” He said about Pomona’s refusal to allow the dining hall workers to unionize, “It’s not about the money, because we’ve got the money.” “However much this union would raise our costs, it’s nothing to us.” “It’s these ideological dinosaurs on the Board of Trustees who can’t abide brown people having any autonomy,” he said.

Ratigan’s solution? “It’s simple! Let the people have their goddamn union!”

Erin Runions, a professor of religious studies at Pomona, said the event was “fabulous. It’s a great turnout. it shows great community support for the workers.” “It shows that what Pomona College does is not just an in-house affair. It’s something that affects the entire community,” she said.

Rachel Gregory PZ ‘12 said that she came to the rally to support workers “because they’re a part of our lives and as human beings, it’s a matter of respect to treat people with dignity, and [that they] receive fair wages.” “The actions of the college have not represented that,” she said.

Describing himself as a frequent supporter of Workers for Justice, Ojan Mobedshahi PZ ‘12, said “I see a good amount of people here, but it’s a lot of the same faces. But there are so many kids who aren’t here who don’t even care. It’s kind of frustrating, especially at a school like Pitzer which is supposed to be so liberal and social justice oriented. People are just in their bubble.”

Mobedshahi offered a solution to increase student participation in Workers for Justice events, “If our schools were structured in such a way was more connection between the students and the staff. Because we talk to the faculty all the time… But the staff? You have to choose to talk to them. And in the dining hall you can, but people just don’t. We don’t know how to. A lot of people, we don’t have family members who are workers. We’re from families with more white-collar workers. If that separation could be bridged, we’d care a lot more about this kind of stuff.”

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