“After 23 years @pomonacollege fires Felipa Sanchez for not showing her papers.”
– Leigh Shelton, UNITE-HERE Local 11.
When I got to Pomona College in the mid-1980s, the issue on the table was apartheid in South Africa. The movement began at the University of California campuses as Campuses United Against Apartheid (an early leader was Ron Dellums, most recently the Mayor of Oakland). We had our sights on the investments made by our college campuses in South Africa (for California colleges, the main conduit was the Bank of America, which we called Bank of Apartheid).
Barack Obama, a student at Occidental, was not immune from these pressures. He gave one of his early speeches against Oxy’s investments in February 1981. “There’s a struggle going on. It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us,” said the young Barry. It was a struggle, he underscored, “between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.”
Taking our cues from the wider movement, those of us at Pomona decided to set up a shantytown outside the college president’s well-appointed house. The president, David Alexander, who had been at his post since 1969, had the demeanor of a patrician, carrying his Tennessee birth as close to his heart as his Oxford education. During the height of the Vietnam War, Alexander affirmed the importance of the liberal arts, “Our task now is to winnow from the welter of changing values those transcendent values for which this college exists, so that while trying to move with society, Pomona College will help move society through education.”
No wonder then that one night he came out to talk to the students. I remember him telling us that our presence was an irritation to his garden, and he hoped that we’d let him have at least one unbroken night of sleep. When he walked away he winked at me and said he was proud of our commitment to our beliefs. Pomona eventually divested (the first college to do so was Hampshire, in 1979).
My college day was evenly divided between classes, activism, hanging out with friends and working at my several jobs (including as a film projectionist for the poet and musician Dick Barnes). The most time-consuming jobs were in the cafeteria and in the library. The cafeteria and library brought me into direct contact with the workers who helped reproduce the life of the campus. I heard of their lives and labors, and enjoyed their irreverent stories about the campus, which I had otherwise seen only from the standpoint of a student. My teachers developed my mind, but my co-workers helped reshape my heart.
For two decades now, the administration of Pomona College has been at loggerheads with the workers in the dining hall. In 1999, when Aramark ran the dining services, the workers intensified their struggle to create a union to fight poor working conditions. On May 1, 2000, the workers blockaded Alexander Hall (named for the former president). Pomona cashiered Aramark and took over management of the dining hall, turning over management of the workers to the notorious Sodexo. By March 2010, the workers once more revived their struggle, calling for the creation of a union. Pomona then removed Sodexo, and took charge of labor management.
All this is the normal course at colleges – with endowments at astronomical levels, colleges continue to pick on dining hall and buildings & grounds workers by cutting their pay, hours and health benefits, and by hiring union-busting lawyers and consultants to do their dirty work. At Pomona, the dining hall management even banned workers from talking to students, including during their breaks. To top it off, in early December, Pomona College decided on the dirtiest anti-labor technique: to check the immigrant status of the workers (looking at their I9 forms). When seventeen workers were not able to hand in their document at a deadline, the College fired them.
Paul Efron, of Goldman Sachs, heads the Trustees at Pomona. He wrote a letter trying to assert that the immigration verification has nothing to do with the labor disputes. The moral sleight of hand tried out by Efron and by the administration reeks of the dirty tricks tactics that are now familiar from corporations (why do they bother to have ethics courses in business school!).
It was evasive to suggest that the labor struggle and the anti-immigrant tactics were separate when it is clear to even the most doltish among us that the working-class in Southern California draws from avast catchment area of immigrants, several of whom have creative paperwork. It was a clear-cut tactic of bringing the law into a labor dispute to chill the fired up workers. Michael Teter (class of ’99 and a law school professor in Utah) wrote a letter to the trustees, “The decision to conduct an audit of the I-9s demonstrates, at best, overzealousness and, at worst, a fundamental disregard for the dignity and privacy of every employee. To seek to justify the College’s actions by referring to a discredited allegation and to federal law is disingenuous.”
Students had been involved in the labor dispute since the 1990s through Workers for Justice. Over the course of the past few years, the students have been alert and active (I have been in touch with several, who contacted me as an alumnus). When news of the firings came, the students took action under the banner of Concerned Students of Pomona College. They organized a boycott of the dining halls, set up a tent to provide support and food, and then produced a protest where they hoped to have seventeen among their number arrested.
Faculty members stood up, as did alumni across the country. Values are taught not just in the classroom but in the very bones of an institution. How it treats its workers sends a message to the student body about what is acceptable in our society. The administration failed its students (or properly taught them about mainstream values in our society, depending on your perspective). The students, from history’s margins, rescued the best of our values. They know that the struggle is between dignity and subservience. They vote for dignity, leaving the administration to stand for subservience.