Dining hall workers at Pomona College have voted to unionize, culminating a three-year campaign that thrust the small liberal arts college into controversy over immigration policy and labor rights.
In the election Tuesday, 83 members of the dining hall staff cast ballots, voting 57 to 26 to join UNITE HERE, Local 11, a union that represents about 20,000 hospitality and food service workers in Southern California.
"I feel very happy we made it," said Benny Avina, 46, a catering chef who has worked at the college for 27 years, starting as a dishwasher. "We need job security and respect — it's not about money. We're doing this for the good of workers, students and also for the college; it's going to be better for everyone in the community."
The union campaign gained national attention in 2011, when the college fired 17 immigrant workers, most of them dining hall staff, who could not provide proper work documents. Many students, faculty and alumni held protests in support of the workers, asserting that the firings were related to union organizing efforts.
College administrators denied that was the case. In a statement Tuesday, college President David W. Oxtoby said the school is committed to working with the employees.
"We consistently stood for the ability of our employees to make this decision for themselves through a democratic process and we are glad that they have exercised that opportunity," Oxtoby said. "I'm happy for our employees that this period of uncertainty is now over, and I'm proud of our community for upholding the principles this institution stands for throughout this difficult, sometimes divisive process."
The election must still be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, at which time the union and college administration will begin negotiating an initial contract.