Social Activism 101
By Tommy Purvis
Pomona College administrators’ ivory tower group think and the finer virtues of noblesse oblige appear to stop at the bottom line. It was evident on Dec. 1 when College President David W. Oxtoby stood firm in the face of public pressure to fire 17 long-term immigrant employees following their two-year effort to form a union. The decision was met with simultaneous and instant direct action from students, alumni, faculty, community members, a workers’ rights organization and a formidable union.
For years, the Frary Dining Hall workers made fine college cuisine and cleaned dishes for students in the 80-year-old building made famous from the priceless hand-painted mural on the great north wall by Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. The well-known image of Prometheus—the Titan from Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus to give to the mortals—is proof that life does often imitate art. At least for the students from this liberal arts college who are awake and trumpets social activism.
A boycott of the dining hall by students and members of the impromptu group Workers for Justice has been met with a growing 16-tent colony vigil in front of Alexander Hall by the autonomous group Concerned Students of Pomona College. Both demand that the workers be hired back, and that the backdoor E-Verify process that led to the termination of the workers cease immediately. The emerging movement for workers’ rights was met the next day with civil disobedience near Oxtoby’s house at the intersection of Fourth Street and College Avenue through organizers from Unite Here.
A group of 15 protesters reached consensus to sit in a circle in the middle of the intersection after Claremont Police made a dispersal order. The activists wore the name and photo of the fired worker that they represented on their shirts. Some were somber and other spoke loudly in defense of the former college employees as they were handcuffed and placed in the back of police vehicles. Officials worked closely with Claremont police to prevent a replay of the UC Davis incident in which peaceful student protestors were attacked with chemical weapons by the now-shamed Lt. John Pike.
Before the civil disobedience went down, the general manager of Frary Dining Hall, Glenn Graziano, had to face the heat from the former workers, along with 150 of their supporters.
“We are here to work,” said former chef Christian Torres. “What you have done is immoral and unethical.”
The fired workers’ spokesperson’s voice was made stronger through the use of the people’s mic, a recently re-invented way to communicate more effectively in the large Zucotti Park crowds with endless urban noise and no amplification. The effective method which also allows people to better hear divergent views has become iconic of the occupy movement.
The response from the Graziano was put into the people’s mic too.
“I am sorry, but you are no longer employees of Pomona College,” he told Torres to a few loud boos.
Graziano, the 31-year food service industry veteran who once got to cook dinner for Ronald Reagan at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, and a Claremont University Consortium security officer, held their ground for an hour-long protest. It included a short speech from the outspoken Jose Zapata Calderon, emeritus professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College.
Claremont Police officers were staged out of view at the back dock.
Supporters of the workers point out that in order to fire the Frary Dining Hall employees Pomona College officials hired an outside firm to review employment documents. This scrutiny of the paperwork—done after workers had spent from five years to a few decades serving students—was enough to fire a third of the dining hall staff members unable to produce alternative documents to save their jobs.
“The verification process was conducted only because of a complaint made to the Board of Trustees alleging that it was a policy of the President, and his administration, not to obtain proper work authorization documentation as required by law,” says Cynthia Peters, the director of media relations for Pomona College.
Regardless of the motive, the National Labor Relations Board alerted Pomona College last week that it will issue a formal complaint as result of two claims of unfair labor practices filed on behalf of the dining halls workers in August and September.