Whittier College dining workers have been on an indefinite strike for the past four weeks, in protest of Bon Appetit Management Company’s non-responsiveness amidst ongoing contract negotiations.
Since the strike began March 27, workers have picketed both in front of Whitter’s dining halls from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, as well as through the nearby streets of Whittier.
About 120 students and professors conducted a walkout in support of the workers on April 4 at 2:30 p.m.. Students also expressed solidarity through food distribution and have run a table with fresh fruit and other small snacks for the duration of the strike.
Influenced by Pomona College dining workers’ contract win in January, Whittier workers, who are also unionized through UNITE HERE! Local 11, are demanding a living $25 dollar wage, increased overtime pay, the establishment of a pension fund and a consecutive eight hour, five-day work week.
Hugo Talavera, a dining hall worker at Whitter, compared the poor wages to those of fast food workers, whose jobs demand far fewer specialized skills.
“It sucks that if I go to apply at McDonald’s right now, I can get paid more there than here with less work,” Talavera said. “Here, we have to do things from scratch, it’s not some ordinary fast food place.”
Many workers are also seeking benefits that would make retirement possible, said Arlo Tinsman-Kongshaug, a student organizer at Whittier College
“We have a 401K plan, which our workers do not make enough money to pay into,” Tinsman-Kongshaug said. “Most of our workers are in their sixties. They're looking to retire.”
Workers demonstrated the urgency for higher wages and a pension fund in a strike vote Feb. 27, where over 85% of workers at Whittier’s two dining halls, Campus Inn and The Spot expressed support for a strike.
Despite these demonstrations of unison, workers and organizers said none of the counter-offers BAMCO has sent the union over the past few weeks have contained a significant wage increase or any mention of a pension.
For workers, the decision to strike for an indefinite period was not an easy one. According to MECha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán) co-Chair and student organizer Natalia Arevalo, the indefinite strike was a last resort. The workers attempted to attain their needs through negotiations, but meetings required long commitments beyond work hours and were hindered by management’s unresponsiveness.
In addition to negotiation meetings, many of the workers also have to supplement their income by working one or more jobs outside of the college. Arevalo acknowledged how the capacity to do so was not a reality for some of their older colleagues, which is why they supported the creation of a pension fund.
“It's really alarming to think that we're a school that stands for social justice, inclusion, equity, and all these things that our president says are our values,” Arevalo said. “But when it comes to demonstrating that and how we treat the people who work on our campus, it's not shown at all.”
Arevalo’s criticism drew parallels with the gripes of student organizers at Pitzer College, who have pointed to similar contradictions at their respective institution.
Organizers and workers at Whittier noted how the struggle for better conditions was a collective effort. Mayra Macias, a Whittier cashier and barista highlighted how the college community has supported organizing efforts.
“The students at Whittier have made [WSWA] an organization for workers rights,” Macias said. “MEChA has been working hand in hand with us. The housekeepers are [in] a different union, [the SEIU], but they're also in negotiations and they're always there for us.”
Many of the workers are Latinx, which has prompted a personal connection for student organizers like Arevalo.
“They're first generation, second generation or immigrants,” Arevalo said. “For me, it just feels really personal because they could be my tio, my tia, my parents, my mom works in the kitchen so I know it's really hard work.”
The strike arrives as part of a greater wave of labor organization across Southern California, with unions at Pomona College, Pitzer College, and the University of La Verne also taking action against BAMCO. Unions at La Verne and Whittier have been acting as joint negotiators, as their contracts are structurally identical.
According to Tinsman-Kongshaug, the Claremont Student Worker Alliance has had a “massive effect” on labor struggles around Eastern LA County and the Inland Empire, especially at Whittier College.
“Whittier Student Worker Alliance really started off as a couple of us going down to Claremont and Pomona and receiving training from various students over there, and then eventually taking what we've learned and recruiting students over here to do the same thing,” he said.
Many Whittier workers, like Hector Silva, expressed gratitude for the level of student support.
“This experience has been really eye-opening and uniting,” Silva said. “It shows the corporate greed that we have here but also how much the students are behind us.”
Sunny Jeong-Eimer also contributed reporting.