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Meet the Students Trying to Organize the First Campus-Wide Undergraduate Union

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Inside the groundbreaking student organizing drive at Kenyon College.

On August 31, stu­dents at Keny­on Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in Gam­bier, Ohio, announced their intent to union­ize with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) in an open let­ter to the school’s pres­i­dent and board of trustees. Stu­dents have request­ed vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion through a card-check neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment with the school’s admin­is­tra­tion. If suc­cess­ful, the Keny­on Stu­dent Work­er Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (K?SWOC) will become the first union to orga­nize its entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, which will include all 800 stu­dent work­er posi­tions avail­able on campus.

“This is a his­to­ry mak­ing cam­paign,” says Dan Nap­sha, a senior major­ing in polit­i­cal sci­ence. ?“If we win, it real­ly does send a mes­sage that this is pos­si­ble and that stu­dent work­ers should be ask­ing for more.”

Labor Day wrapped up a week of action by stu­dent orga­niz­ers, which includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dent work­ers, pan­els on inter­na­tion­al labor and racial jus­tice and vir­tu­al socials and con­clud­ed with endorse­ments from Sens. Sher­rod Brown (D?Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I?Vt.). In a let­ter of sup­port to Keny­on stu­dent work­ers, Sanders wrote, ?“When you and your col­leagues join togeth­er as a union, the admin­is­tra­tion will be required to bar­gain with you in good faith… I respect the crit­i­cal work you do and wish you the very best in your efforts to cre­ate a demo­c­ra­t­ic work­place where your voice has a seat at the table.”

Dis­rup­tion in cam­pus employ­ment due to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic sparked new urgency for stu­dents’ abil­i­ty to bar­gain with the school. When Keny­on closed its cam­pus and switched to remote learn­ing in March, many stu­dents had their work hours cut or stopped work­ing entire­ly. Under­grad­u­ate jobs include work­ing in the din­ing hall, library, admis­sions office and as research assis­tants. Stu­dents say there was a lack of cer­tain­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus or work­ing con­di­tions that has car­ried over into the Fall semes­ter which start­ed August 31 and has about half of the stu­dent body on cam­pus and the oth­er half learn­ing remotely. 

“The pan­dem­ic real­ly served as the cat­a­lyst for us and basi­cal­ly was a sig­nal that enough is enough?—?that we’re fed up,” says Napsha.

In late March, apeti­tion signed by over 200 mem­bers of the col­lege com­mu­ni­ty and spon­sored by Keny­on Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (KYD­SA) to secure stu­dent pay for the rest of the school year proved suc­cess­ful. Though the admin­is­tra­tion did not acknowl­edge the peti­tion, stu­dents were paid for their aver­age week­ly hours regard­less of their abil­i­ty to work remote­ly. A few months lat­er, when the admin­is­tra­tion announced it would be sus­pend­ing retire­ment ben­e­fits for Keny­on staff due to a $19.3 mil­lion deficit in the school’s oper­at­ing bud­get,anoth­er peti­tion, again ini­ti­at­ed by KYD­SA, was cir­cu­lat­ed to ?“stop the cuts.” With the sup­port of stu­dents, UE, which rep­re­sents the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, was able to come to an agree­ment with the admin­is­tra­tion that the major­i­ty of the missed retire­ment ben­e­fits be refund­ed to employ­ees over a peri­od of three years. 

“Both of those [peti­tions] prompt­ed more con­ver­sa­tions about some of the broad­er, more struc­tur­al issues with stu­dent employ­ment,” says Nathan Geesing, a senior major­ing in his­to­ry. ?“That was a sign to orga­niz­ers that col­lec­tive action real­ly had an impact.” 

See­ing the out­come of both peti­tions reaf­firmed to stu­dents that a union would be the best way to move for­ward. Geesing says a union is ?”a mech­a­nism to bar­gain with the admin­is­tra­tion, to not have to rely on the admin­is­tra­tion’s end­less slew of task forces and work­ing groups that con­stant­ly promise change, but rarely, if ever, deliv­er.” Right now, wages for stu­dent work­ers fall into a three-tier wage sys­tem start­ing at $8.70 an hour and capped at $11.17 an hour. Stu­dents say these rates are arbi­trary and do not reflect the nec­es­sary labor they per­form on cam­pus and instead reflect a desire to save the school mon­ey. The wage sys­tem was deter­mined joint­ly bya now dis­band­ed ?“Stu­dent Employ­ment Task Force.”

”The admin­is­tra­tion has nev­er real­ly tak­en stu­dent demands or stu­dent con­cerns seri­ous­ly,” says Geesing. K?SWOC’s demands include greater involve­ment in work­place deci­sion-mak­ing, greater pro­tec­tions and acces­si­bil­i­ty for work-study stu­dents, jus­tice for inter­na­tion­al stu­dent work­ers and a liv­ing wage, among oth­ers. Though stu­dents have not agreed on a dol­lar fig­ure, they say a liv­ing wage would be high enough that stu­dents don’t have to feel like they’re choos­ing between work and their aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies. ?“The union could actu­al­ly give us the bar­gain­ing pow­er that we need, espe­cial­ly in a time like this, where not hav­ing a say in your reopen­ing plan can lit­er­al­ly be a mat­ter of life and death,” Geesing says. 

Keny­on stu­dents, who are both orga­niz­ing under unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances and break­ing new ground by orga­niz­ing their entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, have lim­it­ed exam­ples to point to as a mod­el. Most stu­dent work­er unions are con­cen­trat­ed among grad­u­ate stu­dents in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, though Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst and Grin­nell Col­lege, which man­aged to orga­nize indi­vid­ual shops among under­grad­u­ate res­i­dent advi­sors and din­ing work­ers, has served as a source of inspi­ra­tion for K?SWOC organizers. 

“I imag­ine that if we suc­ceed, you’ll be see­ing a lot more unions on col­lege cam­pus­es,” says Nap­sha. ?“Part­ly because we are build­ing off of the Grin­nell mod­el and we are build­ing off of the UMass Amherst model.” 

”In a larg­er sense,” Geesing says, ?“hav­ing a union at Keny­on could serve as a source of inspi­ra­tion for stu­dent work­ers in oth­ers places in the coun­try to say if they can do it, why can’t we.”

A major source of sup­port has come from the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, a stu­dent-labor alliance that dates back to 2012 when the admin­is­tra­tion attempt­ed to out­source main­te­nance jobs to Sodexo, a food and facil­i­ties man­age­ment com­pa­ny with near­ly half a mil­lion employ­ees world­wide. ?”They’ve giv­en us a kind of men­tor­ship that’s real­ly valu­able,” says Dani Mar­tinez, a senior major­ing in Eng­lish. ?“They def­i­nite­ly want the best for us because they have sim­i­lar things that they have fought for in the past and can give us guid­ance on those things too.”

The main­te­nance work­ers, who are rep­re­sent­ed by UE Local 712, helped ini­ti­ate a rela­tion­ship between stu­dents on cam­pus and UE, with whom they are now orga­niz­ing with. The main­te­nance work­ers, Nap­sha says, have ?“been part­ners with us through this entire process. The rea­son why we have been so suc­cess­ful?—?get­ting close to 200 cards signed, hav­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple orga­nized and hav­ing a 60 per­son strong orga­niz­ing team is because of the strength of our rela­tion­ship with UE.”

As of Labor Day, K?SWOC has sent two requests for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion of their union and the response from the admin­is­tra­tion has most­ly been silence. Mean­while, many stu­dents whose jobs can­not be per­formed remote­ly lack clar­i­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus for this semes­ter and next. Mar­tinez believes that stu­dents who can­not work remote­ly should be trans­ferred and trained in a dif­fer­ent depart­ment with pri­or­i­ty giv­en to stu­dents with work-study, a fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed pro­gram that is sup­posed to guar­an­tee cam­pus employ­ment as part of their finan­cial aid package. 

Mar­tinez, who has worked in library and infor­ma­tion ser­vices since she was a fresh­man, says her employ­ment sta­tus is still up in the air. With Kenyon’s admin­is­tra­tion ulti­mate­ly decid­ing on a sys­tem of teach­ing fresh­man and sopho­mores on cam­pus and teach­ing juniors and seniors remote­ly, many in-per­son jobs will not be avail­able this semes­ter and union orga­niz­ing con­tin­ues to be almost entire­ly remote?—?a strat­e­gy Nap­sha and Geesing say may be play­ing in their favor espe­cial­ly with many stu­dents now stuck at home with lim­it­ed in-per­son distractions. 

Those stu­dents who are work­ing remote­ly and are liv­ing out­side of Ohio are now being paid accord­ing to the state min­i­mum wage where stu­dents are based if it exceeds Keny­on wages. Geesing, who is liv­ing in Mary­land where the min­i­mum wage is high­er, says he got an email from the career devel­op­ment office over the sum­mer inform­ing him that he’d be paid a bonus to make up the wage dif­fer­ence. Geesing says it ?“just shows you how com­plete­ly arbi­trary the tiered sys­tem has been and how they could have paid us more the entire time.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on September 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is a Goodman Investigative Fellow at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @IndigoOlivier.


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