Inside the groundbreaking student organizing drive at Kenyon College.
On August¬†31, stu¬≠dents at Keny¬≠on Col¬≠lege, a¬†pri¬≠vate lib¬≠er¬≠al arts col¬≠lege in Gam¬≠bier, Ohio, announced their intent to union¬≠ize with the Unit¬≠ed Elec¬≠tri¬≠cal, Radio and Machine Work¬≠ers of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca (UE) in an open let¬≠ter to the school‚Äôs pres¬≠i¬≠dent and board of trustees. Stu¬≠dents have request¬≠ed vol¬≠un¬≠tary recog¬≠ni¬≠tion through a¬†card-check neu¬≠tral¬≠i¬≠ty agree¬≠ment with the school‚Äôs admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion. If suc¬≠cess¬≠ful, the Keny¬≠on Stu¬≠dent Work¬≠er Orga¬≠niz¬≠ing Com¬≠mit¬≠tee (K?SWOC) will become the first union to orga¬≠nize its entire under¬≠grad¬≠u¬≠ate work¬≠force, which will include all¬†800¬†stu¬≠dent work¬≠er posi¬≠tions avail¬≠able on¬†campus.
‚ÄúThis is a his¬≠to¬≠ry mak¬≠ing cam¬≠paign,‚ÄĚ says Dan Nap¬≠sha, a senior major¬≠ing in polit¬≠i¬≠cal sci¬≠ence. ?‚ÄúIf we win, it real¬≠ly does send a mes¬≠sage that this is pos¬≠si¬≠ble and that stu¬≠dent work¬≠ers should be ask¬≠ing for more.‚ÄĚ
Labor Day wrapped up a week of action by stu¬≠dent orga¬≠niz¬≠ers, which includ¬≠ed tes¬≠ti¬≠mo¬≠ni¬≠als from stu¬≠dent work¬≠ers, pan¬≠els on inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al labor and racial jus¬≠tice and vir¬≠tu¬≠al socials and con¬≠clud¬≠ed with endorse¬≠ments from Sens. Sher¬≠rod Brown (D?Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I?Vt.). In a let¬≠ter of sup¬≠port to Keny¬≠on stu¬≠dent work¬≠ers, Sanders wrote, ?‚ÄúWhen you and your col¬≠leagues join togeth¬≠er as a union, the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion will be required to bar¬≠gain with you in good faith‚Ä¶ I respect the crit¬≠i¬≠cal work you do and wish you the very best in your efforts to cre¬≠ate a demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic work¬≠place where your voice has a seat at the table.‚ÄĚ
Dis¬≠rup¬≠tion in cam¬≠pus employ¬≠ment due to the Covid-19 pan¬≠dem¬≠ic sparked new urgency for stu¬≠dents‚Äô abil¬≠i¬≠ty to bar¬≠gain with the school. When Keny¬≠on closed its cam¬≠pus and switched to remote learn¬≠ing in March, many stu¬≠dents had their work hours cut or stopped work¬≠ing entire¬≠ly. Under¬≠grad¬≠u¬≠ate jobs include work¬≠ing in the din¬≠ing hall, library, admis¬≠sions office and as research assis¬≠tants. Stu¬≠dents say there was a lack of cer¬≠tain¬≠ty around their employ¬≠ment sta¬≠tus or work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions that has car¬≠ried over into the Fall semes¬≠ter which start¬≠ed August 31 and has about half of the stu¬≠dent body on cam¬≠pus and the oth¬≠er half learn¬≠ing remotely.
‚ÄúThe pan¬≠dem¬≠ic real¬≠ly served as the cat¬≠a¬≠lyst for us and basi¬≠cal¬≠ly was a sig¬≠nal that enough is enough?‚ÄĒ?that we‚Äôre fed up,‚ÄĚ says Napsha.
In late March, apeti¬≠tion signed by over 200 mem¬≠bers of the col¬≠lege com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty and spon¬≠sored by Keny¬≠on Young Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Social¬≠ists of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca (KYD¬≠SA) to secure stu¬≠dent pay for the rest of the school year proved suc¬≠cess¬≠ful. Though the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion did not acknowl¬≠edge the peti¬≠tion, stu¬≠dents were paid for their aver¬≠age week¬≠ly hours regard¬≠less of their abil¬≠i¬≠ty to work remote¬≠ly. A few months lat¬≠er, when the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion announced it would be sus¬≠pend¬≠ing retire¬≠ment ben¬≠e¬≠fits for Keny¬≠on staff due to a $19.3 mil¬≠lion deficit in the school‚Äôs oper¬≠at¬≠ing bud¬≠get,anoth¬≠er peti¬≠tion, again ini¬≠ti¬≠at¬≠ed by KYD¬≠SA, was cir¬≠cu¬≠lat¬≠ed to ?‚Äústop the cuts.‚ÄĚ With the sup¬≠port of stu¬≠dents, UE, which rep¬≠re¬≠sents the main¬≠te¬≠nance work¬≠ers on cam¬≠pus, was able to come to an agree¬≠ment with the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion that the major¬≠i¬≠ty of the missed retire¬≠ment ben¬≠e¬≠fits be refund¬≠ed to employ¬≠ees over a peri¬≠od of three years.
‚ÄúBoth of those [peti¬≠tions] prompt¬≠ed more con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tions about some of the broad¬≠er, more struc¬≠tur¬≠al issues with stu¬≠dent employ¬≠ment,‚ÄĚ says Nathan Geesing, a senior major¬≠ing in his¬≠to¬≠ry. ?‚ÄúThat was a sign to orga¬≠niz¬≠ers that col¬≠lec¬≠tive action real¬≠ly had an impact.‚ÄĚ
See¬≠ing the out¬≠come of both peti¬≠tions reaf¬≠firmed to stu¬≠dents that a union would be the best way to move for¬≠ward. Geesing says a union is ?‚ÄĚa mech¬≠a¬≠nism to bar¬≠gain with the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion, to not have to rely on the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion‚Äôs end¬≠less slew of task forces and work¬≠ing groups that con¬≠stant¬≠ly promise change, but rarely, if ever, deliv¬≠er.‚ÄĚ Right now, wages for stu¬≠dent work¬≠ers fall into a three-tier wage sys¬≠tem start¬≠ing at $8.70 an hour and capped at $11.17 an hour. Stu¬≠dents say these rates are arbi¬≠trary and do not reflect the nec¬≠es¬≠sary labor they per¬≠form on cam¬≠pus and instead reflect a desire to save the school mon¬≠ey. The wage sys¬≠tem was deter¬≠mined joint¬≠ly bya now dis¬≠band¬≠ed ?‚ÄúStu¬≠dent Employ¬≠ment Task Force.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄĚThe admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion has nev¬≠er real¬≠ly tak¬≠en stu¬≠dent demands or stu¬≠dent con¬≠cerns seri¬≠ous¬≠ly,‚ÄĚ says Geesing. K?SWOC‚Äôs demands include greater involve¬≠ment in work¬≠place deci¬≠sion-mak¬≠ing, greater pro¬≠tec¬≠tions and acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty for work-study stu¬≠dents, jus¬≠tice for inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al stu¬≠dent work¬≠ers and a liv¬≠ing wage, among oth¬≠ers. Though stu¬≠dents have not agreed on a dol¬≠lar fig¬≠ure, they say a liv¬≠ing wage would be high enough that stu¬≠dents don‚Äôt have to feel like they‚Äôre choos¬≠ing between work and their aca¬≠d¬≠e¬≠m¬≠ic stud¬≠ies. ?‚ÄúThe union could actu¬≠al¬≠ly give us the bar¬≠gain¬≠ing pow¬≠er that we need, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly in a time like this, where not hav¬≠ing a say in your reopen¬≠ing plan can lit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly be a mat¬≠ter of life and death,‚ÄĚ Geesing says.
Keny¬≠on stu¬≠dents, who are both orga¬≠niz¬≠ing under unprece¬≠dent¬≠ed cir¬≠cum¬≠stances and break¬≠ing new ground by orga¬≠niz¬≠ing their entire under¬≠grad¬≠u¬≠ate work¬≠force, have lim¬≠it¬≠ed exam¬≠ples to point to as a mod¬≠el. Most stu¬≠dent work¬≠er unions are con¬≠cen¬≠trat¬≠ed among grad¬≠u¬≠ate stu¬≠dents in pub¬≠lic uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ties, though Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty of Mass¬≠a¬≠chu¬≠setts Amherst and Grin¬≠nell Col¬≠lege, which man¬≠aged to orga¬≠nize indi¬≠vid¬≠ual shops among under¬≠grad¬≠u¬≠ate res¬≠i¬≠dent advi¬≠sors and din¬≠ing work¬≠ers, has served as a source of inspi¬≠ra¬≠tion for K?SWOC organizers.
‚ÄúI imag¬≠ine that if we suc¬≠ceed, you‚Äôll be see¬≠ing a lot more unions on col¬≠lege cam¬≠pus¬≠es,‚ÄĚ says Nap¬≠sha. ?‚ÄúPart¬≠ly because we are build¬≠ing off of the Grin¬≠nell mod¬≠el and we are build¬≠ing off of the UMass Amherst model.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄĚIn a larg¬≠er sense,‚ÄĚ Geesing says, ?‚Äúhav¬≠ing a union at Keny¬≠on could serve as a source of inspi¬≠ra¬≠tion for stu¬≠dent work¬≠ers in oth¬≠ers places in the coun¬≠try to say if they can do it, why can‚Äôt we.‚ÄĚ
A major source of sup¬≠port has come from the main¬≠te¬≠nance work¬≠ers on cam¬≠pus, a stu¬≠dent-labor alliance that dates back to 2012 when the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion attempt¬≠ed to out¬≠source main¬≠te¬≠nance jobs to Sodexo, a food and facil¬≠i¬≠ties man¬≠age¬≠ment com¬≠pa¬≠ny with near¬≠ly half a mil¬≠lion employ¬≠ees world¬≠wide. ?‚ÄĚThey‚Äôve giv¬≠en us a kind of men¬≠tor¬≠ship that‚Äôs real¬≠ly valu¬≠able,‚ÄĚ says Dani Mar¬≠tinez, a senior major¬≠ing in Eng¬≠lish. ?‚ÄúThey def¬≠i¬≠nite¬≠ly want the best for us because they have sim¬≠i¬≠lar things that they have fought for in the past and can give us guid¬≠ance on those things too.‚ÄĚ
The main¬≠te¬≠nance work¬≠ers, who are rep¬≠re¬≠sent¬≠ed by UE Local 712, helped ini¬≠ti¬≠ate a rela¬≠tion¬≠ship between stu¬≠dents on cam¬≠pus and UE, with whom they are now orga¬≠niz¬≠ing with. The main¬≠te¬≠nance work¬≠ers, Nap¬≠sha says, have ?‚Äúbeen part¬≠ners with us through this entire process. The rea¬≠son why we have been so suc¬≠cess¬≠ful?‚ÄĒ?get¬≠ting close to 200 cards signed, hav¬≠ing hun¬≠dreds of peo¬≠ple orga¬≠nized and hav¬≠ing a 60 per¬≠son strong orga¬≠niz¬≠ing team is because of the strength of our rela¬≠tion¬≠ship with UE.‚ÄĚ
As of Labor Day, K?SWOC has sent two requests for vol¬≠un¬≠tary recog¬≠ni¬≠tion of their union and the response from the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion has most¬≠ly been silence. Mean¬≠while, many stu¬≠dents whose jobs can¬≠not be per¬≠formed remote¬≠ly lack clar¬≠i¬≠ty around their employ¬≠ment sta¬≠tus for this semes¬≠ter and next. Mar¬≠tinez believes that stu¬≠dents who can¬≠not work remote¬≠ly should be trans¬≠ferred and trained in a dif¬≠fer¬≠ent depart¬≠ment with pri¬≠or¬≠i¬≠ty giv¬≠en to stu¬≠dents with work-study, a fed¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly-fund¬≠ed pro¬≠gram that is sup¬≠posed to guar¬≠an¬≠tee cam¬≠pus employ¬≠ment as part of their finan¬≠cial aid package.
Mar¬≠tinez, who has worked in library and infor¬≠ma¬≠tion ser¬≠vices since she was a fresh¬≠man, says her employ¬≠ment sta¬≠tus is still up in the air. With Kenyon‚Äôs admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion ulti¬≠mate¬≠ly decid¬≠ing on a sys¬≠tem of teach¬≠ing fresh¬≠man and sopho¬≠mores on cam¬≠pus and teach¬≠ing juniors and seniors remote¬≠ly, many in-per¬≠son jobs will not be avail¬≠able this semes¬≠ter and union orga¬≠niz¬≠ing con¬≠tin¬≠ues to be almost entire¬≠ly remote?‚ÄĒ?a strat¬≠e¬≠gy Nap¬≠sha and Geesing say may be play¬≠ing in their favor espe¬≠cial¬≠ly with many stu¬≠dents now stuck at home with lim¬≠it¬≠ed in-per¬≠son distractions.
Those stu¬≠dents who are work¬≠ing remote¬≠ly and are liv¬≠ing out¬≠side of Ohio are now being paid accord¬≠ing to the state min¬≠i¬≠mum wage where stu¬≠dents are based if it exceeds Keny¬≠on wages. Geesing, who is liv¬≠ing in Mary¬≠land where the min¬≠i¬≠mum wage is high¬≠er, says he got an email from the career devel¬≠op¬≠ment office over the sum¬≠mer inform¬≠ing him that he‚Äôd be paid a¬†bonus to make up the wage dif¬≠fer¬≠ence. Geesing says it¬†?‚Äújust shows you how com¬≠plete¬≠ly arbi¬≠trary the tiered sys¬≠tem has been and how they could have paid us more the entire¬†time.‚ÄĚ¬†
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.