Administrative and clerical staff vote in favor of unionizing

A National Labor Relations Board election notice posed on the first floor of the Academic Commons. Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. Emily Jo Wharry/The Occidental

Administrative, clerical and support staff across Occidental College voted in favor of unionizing under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 Sept. 9, according to a campus-wide email from Jacalyn Feigelman, associate director of employee relations and training for human resources. Feigelman said the National Labor Relations Board received 65 ballots out of 84 eligible voters: 38 in support, 24 against and three uncounted for technical reasons, such as unsigned ballots.

The vote follows the recent unionization of non-tenure track faculty, who cast ballots in favor of joining SEIU in May 2019. In anticipation of the non-tenure track faculty vote, Occidental’s Student Labor Alliance (SLA) collaborated with SEIU to organize a student march April 2 in support of unionizing. According to Cory*, an Information Technology Services (ITS) employee, administrative, clerical and support staff approached SEIU with an interest in unionizing after seeing the successful vote of non-tenure track faculty.

Occidental employees who are now represented by SEIU include administrative assistants, receptionists, program coordinators and office assistants, among others, according to a National Labor Relations Board election notice posted in the Academic Commons. Employees from a variety of departments — such as Financial Aid, ITS, the Registrar’s Office and the Academic Commons — were eligible to vote.

Cris Sevilla-Pappas, resource acquisitions specialist for the library, said a union offers employees a degree of job safety and protection, as well as guidelines for negotiating with the college.

“Unionizing is not a war between management and employees,” Sevilla-Pappas said. “Instead of 84 people marching to HR if they want something or demand something, or would like to discuss, we have a set of union rules that we follow. These are not mandated by the union itself — these rules are all member-decided.”

For Beatrice Gonzales, theater department coordinator, unionization brings an opportunity to improve consistency, transparency and accountability on all sides of the Occidental employee experience.

“I am very fortunate. I work in a great department and I love everyone I work with,” Gonzales said. “But I know there’s others on campus who work past their hours sometimes. Or people retire or quit or leave and those jobs aren’t replaced, and so all that work comes to us. So I think to have a process in place to deal with the extra workload is something that would help not just us, but the college itself.”

Unionizing efforts are not new to Los Angeles colleges and universities. Within the past few months, employees and students at the University of Southern California (USC) have attempted to unionize with SEIU, and thousands of employees working within the University of California system are currently represented by a number of different unions. Dining hall staff at Pomona College staged rallies and distributed petitions alongside their union, UNITE HERE, in 2017. At Occidental, Teamsters Local 911 represents Facilities and Campus Dining staff.

According to Sevilla-Pappas, Gonzales and Cory, there are a number of steps remaining in the unionizing process. Now that administrative, clerical and support staff have voted in favor of union representation, surveys will be distributed to staff in order to gauge employee concerns. Soon afterward, an election will take place to determine who of the 84 Occidental staff members will serve on the bargaining team. This team will be tasked with bargaining directly with the college alongside SEIU on behalf of all represented staff.

Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein said Occidental staff have been and will continue to be vital to carrying out Occidental College’s mission.

“We respect the outcome of the recent election and look forward to sitting down with union representatives to discuss next steps,” Himmelstein said via email. “Regardless of what the final vote results were, the College will continue to develop stronger connections with staff. We have made this a priority in our current search for the open Associate Vice President for Human Resources position.”

Sevilla-Pappas said while people may typically associate unions with employee strikes or picket lines, voting to unionize is far from being an extreme measure. Day-to-day work and continuing to serve the best interests of students remain priorities.

“There’s social justice involved. There’s economical justice involved,” Sevilla-Pappas said. “It doesn’t have to do with our commitment to the work that we do. Our work ethics remain the same.”

In addition to giving employees a means of advocating for wages that match an increasingly expensive housing market, Cory personally sees another benefit to unionization: breaking down isolation between departments and building a stronger sense of community among staff.

“I know that alone, I can’t really get a lot done, and I can bring things up that are concerns, but if it’s just me, maybe people aren’t going to take them seriously,” Cory said. “But if everybody works together and puts in the same concern as a unit, we really could change things.”

*The Occidental has omitted Cory’s last name in accordance with our anonymous source policy. For more information on anonymity, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.

This article was updated Friday, Sept. 20 at 1:00 p.m. to clarify that elected Occidental staff will join a bargaining team that works alongside SEIU union representatives.