Undergraduates Across the Country Unionize College Workforces

the push to syndicate AmazonStarbucks and other major American corporations are spreading to another employment sector that has historically resisted workers’ efforts to organize: America’s colleges.

Students employed as residential counsellors, teaching assistants, and in campus dining halls are uniting to demand better wages and working conditions, as well as lobbying more broadly for a place at the policy-making table that affects their life.

“We’re definitely seeing a huge shift in the way work works nationally right now,” Katherine Crawford, a 22-year-old senior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, told CBS MoneyWatch. “Student work is real work, despite the fact that we are full-time students and part-time workers,” said Crawford, who held up to three concurrent jobs on campus while studying at Kenyon.

“I manage some of the biggest investments in the college, but I get paid minimum wage to do it,” Crawford said of her work moving expensive artwork to Kenyon’s Gund Gallery. “People deserve to be paid over $9.30 an hour,” she added of Ohio’s minimum wage.

Kenyon pays student workers between $9.30 and $11.94 per hour.

Katherine Crawford, student at Kenyon College.

Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee


Colleges and universities across the United States have long employed undergraduates to operate campus dining halls and dormitories, but until recently, attempts at organization have been rare.

Public universities are governed by state law, while private colleges are covered by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB determined in 2016 that private college students have the right to form a union, although the board’s interpretation of labor rules could change dramatically depending on the political party in charge, John Logan, professor and director of studies on labor and employment at San Francisco State University, CBS MoneyWatch told CBS in an email.

“The employee/student status of student employees has changed a few times based on what they call ‘political swing’ or ‘pendulum swings’ at the NLRB, and it’s still not etched in the book. marble, so to speak. A future NLRB Republican could reverse that again,” Logan wrote.

Pandemic payroll

Like with organizing efforts at Amazon and Starbucksthe the pandemic has helped revive organizational efforts on some campuses. The spread of the virus meant that student community counselors — Kenyon’s equivalent of what other schools call residential counselors — had to function as a “miniature security guard on campus,” said Crawford, a student since his freshman year and CA for two years.

RAs at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, have seen their roles similarly transformed by the pandemic.

“I would say that COVID, like so many other issues, brought so many things to light. With ARs in particular, we had no control over residential policies but we had to enforce them,” Violet Daar said. , a 22-year-old man. in Wesleyan.

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Violet Daar, 22, at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, said the school’s student advisers “have no control over residential policies.”

Wesleyan Student Employed Union


Having to ensure that COVID-19 safety protocols are followed, such as only allowing two residents of a dorm to sit in a common space, goes beyond “our level of training and compensation”, Dar added.

In 2020, Kenyon rejected an application for voluntary recognition from a union of undergraduate workers. The small liberal arts college is now the scene of one of the most contentious standoffs.

“Our decision is rooted in our belief that the fundamental relationship we have with students is educational, and that campus work exists to continue that education and make it financially accessible to students of all incomes. It is not the pattern found in traditional workplaces,” the college said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

In January, Kenyon announced that it would switch to a system of paying its community councilors stipends instead of salaries. The change represents an effort to declassify them as employees entitled to minimum wage and other rights under the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee, or KSWOC.

In response, the majority of Kenyon’s community counselors and dozens of student teaching assistants quit their jobs this week to protest what they call the college’s unfair labor practices.

Kenyon said it would continue to operate as normal during the work stoppage and respect the students’ right to protest. “Kenyon has not engaged in any unfair labor practices. We have repeatedly stated that changing a stipend payment method does not change the college’s relationship with CAs,” a spokesperson said. in an email. CAs will get a pay raise by switching to a stipend, she noted.

“Kenyon is the only college fighting us to this degree. They have two attorney partners who are paid $950 an hour each, spending thousands of dollars fighting us on this, and meanwhile, Grinnell, Wesleyan and Dartmouth decide to work with their students,” said Lynn Butzlaff, a 22-year-old who works as a student-farmer in residence and as an assistant to a German teacher.

KWOC’s petition for a campus-wide undergraduate student union is “unprecedented and raises significant legal issues,” according to Kenyon, who said he “appropriately sought legal advice.” Two unfair labor practice charges filed against the college last year were dismissed by the NLRB, according to the school.

At other colleges, administrators’ reactions to student organizing have been mixed. Grinnell College student dining workers in Grinnell, Iowa, formed a collective bargaining unit in 2016, but Grinnell opposed efforts by the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, or UGSDW , to extend to all student workers.

“While we have determined that union expansion is not the way forward, we are proud to have supported the formation of the nation’s first independent union for undergraduate students at a private college,” said Grinnell in a 2020 letter to students, faculty, and staff. .

However, Grinnell recently softened its stance on what could become the first undergraduate union on every campus in the country. Last month, the Grinnell board approved a neutrality agreement ahead of an election — to be held at an undetermined date this spring — on the inclusion of all or more of 750 hourly student workers in UGDSW.

The same scenario played out during a faster clip at Dartmouth College, where student food workers in late March voted to unionize. The ballot certified by the National Labor Relations Board came after Dartmouth refused to voluntarily recognize the Student Worker Collective.

“Dartmouth has pledged to remain neutral on whether student workers should unionize, a very rare commitment for employers in their organizing efforts, but one that reflects Dartmouth’s position that the decision was up to the students” , said the Hanover, New Hampshire office. private school said in a statement. “We respect student choice and look forward to developing a strong relationship,” said Joshua Keniston, vice president of campus services and institutional projects.

Wesleyan University confirmed its voluntary recognition in March of a union representing about 100 student workers, but declined further comment.

“Voluntary recognition isn’t unheard of, but it’s certainly not the norm,” Logan said.

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