“Without Us, the School Would Fall Apart”
Workers throughout the United States have had to organize to demand basic workplace health and safety protections during the pandemic. That’s also true of workers in higher education — including Kenyon College, where undergraduate workers are organizing a union.
- Interview by
- Piper Winkler
Like most colleges, Kenyon College depends upon its undergraduate students for essential labor. But when the coronavirus caused campus evacuations this spring, Kenyon student workers found themselves left out of the school administration’s support system. Denied pay and remote work opportunities, many of these student workers came together over Zoom meetings to organize against on-campus austerity. Over the summer, their main strategy became clear: forming a union.
Working with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 712, which represents Kenyon maintenance staff, Kenyon student workers are fighting for a card-check neutrality agreement to win union representation. They are making their organizing committee and demands public. The students are insisting that student workers, like all workers, need job stability, fair wages, paid sick leave, and the right to safely organize. Jacobin’s Piper Winkler spoke to organizers Nick Becker, John Ortiz Vargas, and Sigal Felber about the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee’s organizing.
Everything started around early March, when the coronavirus began. Students were sent home from Kenyon. I was off campus in the spring, but I heard through the grapevine, through some of my friends, that people were being sent home. One of my friends, Nick, with some other people who were involved in the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter at Kenyon, led a petition to pay student workers. When campus closed, the Kenyon president announced that faculty and staff would continue to receive pay, but there wasn’t a word about student workers.
The YDSA set up a petition to ensure pay during the rest of the semester, and the college listened to that petition. From there, the people who wrote that petition realized that the best way to advocate for student workers’ rights was through a workers’ union. We believe that it is the most democratic, transparent, efficient, and solidarity-oriented way of organizing.
Through the petition, we were able to eventually get pay for all student workers for the average amount of hours worked for the duration of the semester, which was a really big relief. But some of us understood that was a temporary relief, and that COVID-19 wasn’t going away. It was going to cause more problems, and there were already a lot of problems existing within student employment that COVID-19 magnified, in terms of lack of job accessibility and security for all student workers, but especially those on work study and from low-income backgrounds.
We received major help from the maintenance department. They’re members of UE Local 712. We’d worked with them in the past year, and they helped us to understand what a union looks like, as well as how to organize around the issues we were concerned with.
Which student workers will be covered by the union, and what kinds of successes has the committee had so far in organizing for it?
We are aiming for a student union of anyone who receives a paycheck from the college. That said, the shops we have put the most time and effort into are ones that pay more than one person in that job. There are lots of jobs that involve a one-off research assistantship for one professor, and those people are welcome to join. But we have taken concerted actions among the community advisers (CAs), library workers, lifeguards, and other groups of student workers that comprise larger workplaces.
Our most notable victory so far has been with the CAs. The college asked its CAs to make a decision about whether they would return to campus, because upperclassmen are studying remotely this semester. They had a four-day period to decide whether or not they would come back, and they had no job description, nothing about safety precautions for residential life during a pandemic. They were supposed to make the decision on blind faith. That sparked the CAs to organize.
Organizing among the CAs started with a big group chat, where we started planning meetings. In those meetings we started listing our grievances, which eventually became demands.
In our case, those demands were first presented to our direct employers, our managers. And then, when that came to nothing, CAs scheduled a meeting with the vice president of student affairs. Our demands were turned down then. Two days later, we received an email that we would receive a raise and a $1,000 reduction to room and board.
Can you tell me about your committee’s interactions with the school administration? What kinds of demands have you made to them? How have they responded to your organizing?
We have been lobbying for a card-check neutrality agreement through the summer, because we can’t organize through an election due to the Trump NLRB, which does not recognize student workers as workers. We need voluntary recognition through the college, which could be best done through a card-check agreement.
The maintenance union tried to get that in their contract that they negotiated this July, and this was opposed by the administration. This interaction is indicative of the college’s response — no drive to understand where we’re coming from. I’ve been told by two members of senior staff, “You can just have an election.” No, we can’t. We want a pathway to organize, and they won’t let that happen. We’re still pushing for that.
When the maintenance workers attempted to negotiate in July, the college not only rejected the card-check agreement, but also refused to sign a neutrality agreement that would prevent firing, harassment, or intimidation of organizing workers. They refused to sign even that small guarantee.
Over the summer, we met with the vice president of student affairs from Kenyon, asking for higher wages because our job was going to be more difficult and dangerous this year. She told us how important we are for the college, and how much social life and campus are going to depend on us this year. But she told us that she didn’t believe that an additional amount of money was necessarily equitable.
It felt as though the administration would not recognize that our lives were in danger at this point. I said in the meetings, “You’re not listening to us. You don’t care what’s happening to us.” I felt like I was being told that I had options when I never had options.
How has this committee caused students to think about their identity as workers? Have you seen hesitation from students who don’t see their labor as fitting into a category of unionized work?
This campaign has really helped open my eyes to the services that we provide, the labor we give to the school that allows it to function. Before this campaign, the way that I may have thought about student labor was very different. I’m a work-study student, so receiving work from the college felt like, “You can have this job to help meet your financial need.” That was how I thought about it, even though the job accessibility and security for work-study students is dismal at our school.
My perspective was changed by talking to a worker in the art gallery. He pointed out that the work that he does for $8.70 an hour gives the college tons of resources that, without student labor, would probably be given to a full-time salaried worker with benefits. That role would be paid much, much more than student workers, who provide essentials to the college and create things that benefit the whole community. Students have come to understand through this campaign how critical we are to the school’s functioning, and that without us, the school would fall apart.
When you’re talking to people about this, do other students say, “I’m a student — $8.70 is fine for me! I don’t deserve any more”? If so, what is your response?
Here is the importance of solidarity and collective liberation. Even if the changes you want are not for yourself, what fellow student are you willing to stand up for? What person, who might be coming from a low-income family, will you stand in solidarity with? Beyond your personal life, there are hundreds of other student workers who make the campus function, and the college is getting by using cheap labor because students are conditioned to think that they don’t deserve any more.
What other difficulties have you faced in organizing your fellow students?
I can speak from the international student perspective. In a general sense, international students in the United States are always in a vulnerable position. Our actions are highly scrutinized. If we do one thing wrong, our scholarships can be jeopardized. That has been an obstacle. International students may not know how a union will affect them; this is an obstacle to joining or supporting a union, because if they don’t know, people often assume that it could hurt them in some way.
As an international student from Costa Rica, I’ve always felt like I could never ask for more — not even what I deserve, as a right. I always used to feel unsupported. But after joining this committee, for the first time in more than two years of living in the United States, I finally have a support system that advocates alongside me. Now I don’t fear asking for what I should have. That one thing is why I believe that the union is the best way, the only way, that international student workers can seek justice.
Looking forward, have you thought about the kinds of points that you would like to be covered in your first contract? What are going to be your first asks as a union?
The most important thing is union recognition. Among other things, we hope to gain student worker involvement in the workplace, in workplace decision-making. And we want to be treated as what we are, which is essential workers for the college.
A lot of colleges, including Kenyon, have wage tiers that they have on their website. Tier 1, the lowest tier, might be so-called unskilled labor, pushing papers. For Tier 2, you get paid $1.25 more. It’s meaningless, because we found people who went through extensive training receiving Tier 1 pay, and vice versa. It’s arbitrary. What we found is that it was an excuse to pay people even lower poverty wages than others. We want to raise the floor for all student workers in terms of pay raises.
The biggest two points are equity in job access and a fair wage. Student workers at the Kenyon art gallery are paid at the lowest pay tier, and yet they do very skilled work. This is a rural area, and if you want to work in an art gallery, you are locked into a low wage for doing skilled work that will look good on your resume. But that’s completely inaccessible for someone who needs more hours.
We’re also asking for paid sick days and paid mental health days, which we do not have. The college recently sent out a memo to explain how sick days will work during the pandemic. They said, “If you have to quarantine, you can get paid for doing your remote work, but if you are sick, you will not get paid for work that is not done.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Our fight right now is a broader trend in the United States. It is a reflection of the national situation. Residential advisers at other schools, for example, are now making the same demands that we made of Kenyon.
The way we’re being treated is a reflection of how colleges in the United States view student workers. Knowing that, it is clear to me that what every student worker needs is a student union to advocate for themselves. By advocating for a union, I am supporting my international peers at Kenyon, as well as the rest of the community of Kenyonites. I want this to be an opportunity to be in solidarity with each other, an opportunity that has a set of concise actions that people can take.
I hope that our campaign can show that labor organizing is a great model for how to build institutions to include student and non-student workers in decision-making processes at colleges and universities, and to fight back against policies that would hurt all workers.
Something that I’ve seen as a member of YDSA, for example, is that labor organizing can involve finding the union on campus and supporting it. We did that. But an especially impactful way to support them is to build power with them.
Ultimately, many of the students providing support to workers during the spring petition were workers themselves, workers who provide critical labor to the college. It’s important that that is not only recognized and validated, but also turned into a source of support and strength for fellow student workers — giving them the protections that they deserve and need.
How did your organizing start, and what actions have you taken so far?