CLAREMONT - Workers fed them breakfast, lunch and dinner, and when it was time to turn the tables, Pomona College students rose to the occasion.
On their quest to unionize, 65 dining hall workers have sought help from the students with getting their message across as well as "finding outside legal and organizing consultation."
"It's hard for the students not to be connected to this," said Sam Gordon, a junior. "They literally provide for us."
On Tuesday, the workers petitioned the college's Senate in hopes of garnering support for a right to bargain collectively and without interference from the school's administration. Students also hosted a rally during Saturday's trustee meeting to draw attention to the workers' demands.
"They are a great support for us," said Benny Avina, catering chef at the college. "We've been struggling. They push you to that point. The unions are one of the last resources you have."
The Web site for Pomona Workers for Justice, maintained by a students on behalf of dining hall workers, claims that workers were not paid overtime and that promises for nine months of work were not fulfilled.
"I cannot guarantee (abuses of overtime pay) never happened in the past, but as soon as we find out we correct it," said college's President David Oxtoby.
Last year, on average, the college paid for 212 overtime hours per dining hall employee, Oxtoby said. Also, each employee worked 1,510 hours during the school year 2008-09, which adds up to 70 hours more than nine months of full-time work.
Petitions are also being circulated by students, demanding that Oxtoby signs a "card-check neutrality agreement."
"Neutrality agreement is essentially a pledge by employer that they will not engage in any anti-union practices," said John Lloyd, an assistant professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona.
Oxtoby said he is not anti-union, but favors an election conducted by National Labor Relations Board, He wants to be able to have an open discussion with the workers.
"I don't believe we intimidate workers," Oxtoby said. "There will be no harassment, no firings of anyone involved."
Workers have been forming unions either through majority signup or through a National Labor Relations Board - usually secret - election since 1935.
If a group of workers choose the majority signup, also called the "card check," NLRB can then certify their union if a majority of them sign authorization cards designating the union as its bargaining representative.
But under the current law, the employers can veto workers' decision to organize through majority signup and force them into the NLRB election process.
"There is a fear among union activists that employer's call for secret ballot is not really intended to protect workers' rights but as a delay tactic," Lloyd said. "It gives the employer a chance to discourage the employees from joining."
One year ago today, President Barack Obama introduced the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the choice on how to unionize.
EFCA would have stiffen penalties against employers that discriminate against workers for their union activity. It would also allow employers and newly formed unions to use binding arbitration if they are not able to agree on a first contract. Under current law, employers have a duty to bargain in good faith, but are under no obligation to reach agreement.
But last summer, the "card check" provision of the bill was dropped, Lloyd said.
"It's a big compromise," he said. "Colleges tend to be more progressive socially than corporations, more open to accepting unionization. But we must remember that colleges and universities are also employers and that sometimes acts like employees unionizing may resolve in higher labor costs."