- Interview by
- Oren Schweitzer
For nearly a year now, Kenyon undergraduate student workers have been organizing a public union drive as the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (KSWOC) with United Electrical Workers (UE). If recognized, KSWOC would be the first “wall-to-wall” university union in US history representing all undergraduate student workers.
This past Thursday, they announced an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike in five of their shops in response to what the student workers say are illegal labor practices by the Kenyon administration. It is the first undergraduate student worker labor strike in US history. Oren Schweitzer spoke with student workers Nick Becker, Djibril Branche, Sigal Felber, Rebecca Kornman, and Dani Martinez, and with UE Local 712 workers Glen Goodwin and Bob Smith.
Last time leaders from KSWOC spoke to Jacobin was in September. Could you give us a refresher on the history of this campaign?
KSWOC is a union drive organizing for better wages, benefits, and conditions for undergraduate student workers at Kenyon College, representing students from every workplace on campus. In December, the administration rejected our recognition proposal after three months of deliberating. They said they had held twenty meetings [about the drive] and expected us to be impressed by that number. Since then, we have been consistently organizing for better wages and benefits.
At the beginning of this semester, there was a similar moment to what happened last summer when it was very unclear if student workers would still have their jobs. We had a two-week quarantine period called “quiet period,” but the school neglected to provide remote work. This has been our big focus so far.
For the library circulation desk, our supervisor told us we shouldn’t report to work during that first quiet period, and we were told later on there would be a second, extended quiet period because COVID cases weren’t at the level they should have been. That second quiet period, our supervisor told us we could come in to work. If we were feeling unsafe or had some sort of issue coming back to work, then we wouldn’t be paid for any hours.
For the lifeguards, since that’s another workplace where we can’t do remote work, we didn’t even receive our schedules until the quiet period was about to end, two weeks into school. Once it did start, we had reduced hours, because we then had another quiet period. We asked our supervisor if we could be paid for the hours that we missed, because we weren’t aware that the second quiet period was going to be happening, and we were never told we weren’t being paid. He said he would love to, but it was above his pay grade, and at that point we went to the administration.
During the quiet period, it was really hard to get paid at the farm. Due to some bureaucratic mishap, I actually wasn’t even rehired even though I was told I would have a job. That’s the same for a lot of people at the farm who haven’t even been paid yet or don’t have access to time sheets. People are entering their hours on Google Docs. For the farm, quiet period doesn’t change much, because if we don’t do our jobs on a daily basis, chickens will die, goats will starve, things will be bad. But we’ve also really struggled with getting paid.
Many of these problems result from minor policy changes the administration makes in student employment, made without talking to or consulting with students. For example, what Djibril was just talking about, not being rehired from semester to semester: back in September, after the union drive went public, without giving any reason, the administration made it so that workplaces couldn’t hire students for a full year. I used to be hired on a yearly basis, not a semester-to-semester basis, so I wouldn’t have to worry about if I would be hired again from semester to semester.
We’re publicly agitating to re-implement the old system across the board, which would reduce anxiety, turnover, and stop students from losing their jobs in the middle of the year. The change to this new system resulted in an entire workplace at the farm not being paid for a month now.
Yeah, we haven’t been paid adequately for about a month, month and a half. Some of us have gotten paid, some of us haven’t. I got two hours of pay so far, and I’ve been working consistently for about a month now.
How has KSWOC approached organizing around these issues?
These issues did come up last semester during quiet periods. At the time, we were able to solve many of the issues by organizing at the supervisor level. We also brought these issues up to the Board of Trustees when they were deciding whether or not to recognize KSWOC. Something that’s very frustrating is that in the past, student worker issues have been solved, but only at a supervisor level — that is, they tell us they’ll take care of it in our specific situation and make the issue go away. But the policies are never actually clarified. There’s never student involvement in the official decision-making structure.
As a result, this shit just keeps happening. Student workers keep losing money, keep having anxiety about whether or not they’ll have a job, and there’s no follow through. It really shouldn’t have to be on student workers to organize around these things every time someone doesn’t get paid. But if KSWOC didn’t do that on the shop-floor level, people wouldn’t get paid.
When we did that again in response to the issues we’ve faced this semester, not only did they not solve it on a supervisor level, but they decided to dig their heels in and say, “we’re just not going to do this, we’re just not going to listen to you.” That was the inciting incident to organize a lot more people, which brought us to the point we’re at now.
How successful have you been in organizing student workers into KSWOC?
Starting in the summer, we were reaching out to individual students. Since then, we’ve really solidified our shops where workers interact on their own to get their workplaces organized so that we can function as a whole union. We have those personal relationships already with our coworkers. Especially this semester, it’s been a lot of talking to people in person since we’ve been remote for so long. Having those one-on-one conversations and telling them that the issues that they’re facing at their workplaces are the same issues we’re all facing too, and we want to solve them together.
One big difference since we’ve been organizing is that now I’m actually friends with my coworkers more, and the organizing process is a lot more natural. It seems like everyone is fighting for what they know they deserve and what they know is just and right. People have been continuing to radicalize each other away from the rhetoric that we’ve heard: “you have been granted a job from Kenyon” or “it’s a privilege to be paid by Kenyon.” Now the rhetoric is more like: “we deserve our money, it is just for us to have these jobs, and it’s our right to be treated fairly at work.”
In terms of numbers, last time we spoke to Jacobin, we were very close to getting majority support within the student workforce. As of now, we are at around 60 percent of undergraduate student workers for those who have signed union cards and have joined KSWOC. There are roughly 480 student workers at Kenyon.
What does the relationship with UE Local 712 look like? What sort of organizing have you done together?
Our relationship with Local 712 began before the KSWOC organizing drive and has been very strong. Different clubs and unions on campus met to begin forming a student-labor alliance where we could talk about issues and organize around them together. When student workers took the plunge of starting a union drive, Local 712 was right there with us, guided us, and gave us support — especially the national UE, because a lot of national unions probably wouldn’t have backed this kind of effort. Having the maintenance workers [who were already members of Local 712] say, “No, this is real, we’re going to stand by them” was key.
In terms of recent demonstrations of support, we had an informational picket last Tuesday that was supported by multiple members of UE 712. I spoke to other student workers and students passing by, and they were very impressed that the maintenance workers were there. It made our organizing effort seem more real to them.
We’re trying to form a union of student workers, but the way that Kenyon treats its employees in general is part of the same system. Whenever they mistreat maintenance workers or don’t negotiate fairly with unions on campus, or even try to outsource the entire maintenance department as they did in 2012, that is how Kenyon, as an employer, treats its employees and that’s also reflective of how it treats its student workers. Organizing against those practices is something that’s really important to us.
On Thursday, you announced that you are going on strike. What was the catalyst that caused you to decide that you needed to strike? What has it looked like to organize support for the strike among KSWOC members and student workers in general?
Mainly, it was the quiet period pay issues we were describing before. There was a lot of frustration among the circulation workers, lifeguards, farm workers, and a lack of communication about what would happen in the future, if there was going to be another quiet period. That was never expressed to us, whether it would go one way or another or how the pay would work if and when it happened again. For my shop, there was a lot of frustration and lack of communication building up throughout the year that culminated in this last straw, which was us not being paid for at least two weeks.
There’s a very clear catalyst for the farm workers. Our boss is rarely ever there — only about four times a semester. Over the summer he decided that the farm needs a dog and needs students to train it. So he got this dog, and students were expected to take care of it and train it. And not only train it but train it to be a farm dog that has a very specific skill set. People were not compensated for the hours they spent taking care of it, walking and feeding it, etc. All of us student workers were against getting the dog in the first place, but our boss got it anyway, and he’s never even here. And now, we might have to sell it, because it’s not even a trained farm dog because it’s impossible to expect students to do so successfully.
This whole experience made everyone realize that we simultaneously have so much responsibility for the farm, because our boss isn’t here — we’re responsible for what seeds we buy, what seeds we plant. We have to do all this work, but we have very little decision-making power over the farm. If our boss wants to get a dog and make us take care of it, and make us take care of it even for free many times, we have no say over that.
So the strike for us is a way to say, “We run this farm. We need to have some ownership and decision-making power over the way it goes.”
We have documentation of the school engaging in multiple unfair labor practices — specifically over the past two years, but going back for ages with their very broken student employment system. When we were speaking with the administration, asking for this back pay, we told them that if they did not cooperate with us in a way that is meaningful, we would consider authorizing a vote to strike. It came to that.
The Kenyon student employment system is very reliant on student employees not speaking out and not noticing that these unfair practices are happening, or at least not thinking that they’re in the place that they can speak out about it and still keep their job and still have a place on campus for them. We aren’t going to take that anymore.
How has the rest of the student body reacted to the announcement of the strike? How has the administration reacted to the announcement of the strike?
One story that I think embodies the student-body reaction is a text I received Thursday from one of my professors, who has been a pretty tremendous ally of KSWOC. It was right after we announced the strike, and he teaches a class on race and work. He said, “Oh my gosh, so many of my freshmen just stayed back after class for thirty minutes to talk about the strike, what it means in the context of our class. They’re so supportive of you guys. Consciousness has definitely been raised, and people are really in favor of your actions.”
Another funny story: the other day, when we were doing our informational picket after we did our action authorizing the strike, my friend went into our dining hall to hang up some posters and these big sporty guys were talking about our action. And one of them said something like “come on, bro. They just want to get their money. I understand it. They’re just doing what’s right for them, dude.”
I think we definitely started to reach groups beyond the self-selecting KSWOC base, both freshmen and people who are generally not student workers.
Kenyon is a very small campus, and we’re centrally located around a few buildings. There’s only one dining hall, and we’ve been having our informational pickets outside right around dinner time. You see lots of familiar faces, people you’re in class with, people you live in the same building with. It’s hard for people to get upset and oppose us when our faces are attached to the campaign, when they would be criticizing the person who sits next to them in class or lives down the hall.
There’s a lot of rhetoric about student workers as if we just have our jobs for the resume or for professional experience. But it’s important that people recognize we’re workers like anyone else. This pay is important, not just so that we can have pocket money, but it’s actually for essential items we need to pay for just like anyone else with a job.
Kenyon is fundamentally treating student workers different from other students. They don’t recognize that when we go into the workplace, when we spend more hours at work than we do for half of our classes combined, that is a huge part of our lives. So whenever they make decisions about the workplace that results in lost wages, or in anxiety about whether or not we’ll be able to keep our jobs, that’s affecting our lives in real ways more than academic policies do in some cases. That’s why it’s so clear that, even though it sounds small, student workers need a voice in the workplace.
In terms of the administration reaction, so far it’s been pretty quiet. We do know they have received the strike notice, and have informed the supervisors around what they should do and not do in terms of the legal protections of the strike. They’re trying their best to pretend it’s not affecting them. But they aren’t doing a very good job.
A bit down the chain of command, at the supervisor level, my workplace was supposed to do a public event on Wednesday. My supervisor changed it to a later date, saying, “I’m going to change this so I know you’ll all be available for it.” A few other people have had similar instances where their supervisors have alluded to the fact that we’re going on strike.
In your announcement, you also pointed out that this is the first undergraduate student worker strike in US history.
It’s definitely amazing and helps motivate us a little. But sometimes around campus, people say, “Oh, they’re just doing this because they want to be the first.” That’s really not the case. We’re going on strike because it needs to happen. We need union democracy on this campus. We need representation for students in their workplaces. This is the best way to win it. If it can inspire other schools to get on board with labor organizing at an undergraduate level, that’s incredible.
If we don’t do it, no one will. We’re finally representing a demographic that is usually just stripped of a voice and is disadvantaged when it comes to enforcing our rights over issues like wage theft. For once we will be the ones actually being proactive in our actions and getting the rights we deserve and not having our wages stolen from us.
Something that Kenyon talks about a lot, especially in relation to student employment and especially the past few months, since this campaign has started, is that our jobs on campus are supposed to be learning experiences, setting us up for the real world. Being a lifeguard doesn’t give me any real-world work experience or educational value. These campus jobs just teach you that when you go out into the workforce you are supposed to be exploited, you are supposed to be stripped of a voice, you are simply a cog in the machine, you’re not your own person as a worker. It certainly taught me that but hasn’t taught me much else.
Even if this is the first time it’s happening, considering that we’re also the first wall-to-wall undergraduate student-worker union, I don’t think that we will be the only one for very long. A lot of other schools have reached out to us to talk about organizing, especially in Ohio. With the more visibility this movement gets, the more our method and knowledge and ethos about the importance of union democracy will be more widespread. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this happening in the near future, so it isn’t so exceptional. Hopefully undergraduate student-worker unions will become normal.
It’s also important to note that the strike isn’t the end. It’s one important step that we’re taking in this campaign, but that doesn’t mean that this is the end of the campaign. It’s just the beginning of a new chapter in the campaign of our final goal of getting the union recognized. We’re not going to stop until we get the union.
What kind of advice would you give to student workers on other campuses who might be inspired by your organizing but aren’t sure what to do?
In every employment setting, but especially in every student-employment system, student workers have major issues, things that are wrong. A year ago, if you would have asked me about those kinds of issues at my workplace, I would have said, “Oh, that’s not really an issue, that’s just how it is.”
The best advice I can give is to talk to your coworkers about it and ask them, “Is this something that is wrong, that we should fix? Do we deserve better than this?” Anchoring your organizing in those issues will build much more effective organization.
We’re going on strike because these issues do affect us on a day-to-day basis. We’re organizing because we want to fix these issues, not just because we want a union. And the kind of issues that we’re facing, you’re definitely facing, too. You just have to identify them and organize around them.
Remind yourselves that unions are for every workplace and every worker. There’s no one type of work or one demographic of people that unions are for. If you are a worker, then you deserve a union.
Also, don’t doubt the power of community organizing. Especially at our age, we are so deeply connected through technology and social circles. Use it to your advantage.
If there’s a union presence on campus already, whether that’s the dining hall staff, or the custodial staff, or maintenance, talk to them first. Build with the network that already exists. Our organizing wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have an existing relationship with UE Local 712.
People can donate to our strike fund that we’ve set up on Venmo at @KSWOC and comment “strike fund.” There’s also an Action Network letter-writing campaign that Our Revolution Ohio set up and that would also be really helpful for people to show support for. And also just promoting information about the campaign and the strike in general.
Interview with UE Local 712 representatives Bob Smith, president of the local, and Glen Goodwin, its vice president.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work conditions? How has the Kenyon administration been treating you and other campus staff?
Initially, most of us spent six weeks at home last spring, if not longer. Some of us were out from March through the beginning of June. The biggest impact has just been the inability to gather for meetings, which makes coordination tough. The college has treated us well, paying us for all the time we spent at home back in the spring. We gave up our retirement for a year, but through contract negotiations last spring, we were able to get those paid back starting July 1.
The college has treated us in the maintenance group very well during this. Some of us were home for a few weeks, so we were always told to be available to be called on any given day, because they might need us on campus. I was called in a few times. When everybody got told to stay home, it was a shock for everybody, whether you were a student or a worker, or if you were a student worker or a union worker. A lot of us in our life never thought we would see the likes of what happened last year. A lot of places had not taken care of their workers and some places have taken care of some of their workers but not all of their workers.
The students were pretty severely impacted by all of this, and I feel for them. Most of the staff I’ve talked to, both union and not, didn’t see the hit or ramifications that the students did.
In the beginning of COVID, students ran a big campaign against the proposed retirement cuts. Can you tell me a bit about that organizing effort?
The college announced they were suspending retirement contributions for the fiscal year. We had a contract expiring July 1 last year and offered the college a one-year extension with a pay freeze. After we offered that, they announced the retirement contributions would be ceasing also. Since we’re under contract, they had to negotiate with us, and we were able to negotiate the restoration of those retirement contributions over a period of 3 years.
What did the student-labor solidarity look like in that fight?
The students got a petition up to stop the cuts. In just a few days, they were approaching around a thousand signatures. That certainly helped.
The students definitely helped us with our campaign, getting us motivated, getting the petition signed. It was the negotiating team that drafted the payback on the retirement. We’re actually getting a payback of 3 percent every year on the makeup. They put in nine and a half for staff and said they couldn’t put it in for us without putting it in for all.
The students went to battle for us. We’ve tried to support them in their effort too. I’ve sat in on quite a few Zoom calls, helped them picket, and try to give them the support back any time we can.
Is there a long history of student-labor solidarity at Kenyon? There was a 2012 fight against proposed outsourcing of the maintenance department. Was there any student solidarity in that fight too?
Over the years, every time we’ve ever had any struggles, whether it was just a tough contract or when we got locked out in 1997 or the attempted outsourcing in 2012, the students have always been quick to jump on our side, support us, come out and picket with us, and spread petitions. That’s why I feel strongly that, now that the students are the ones in that position, we owe it to them to return the favor. It’s not the same kids that supported us twenty years ago or eight years ago but it’s still the same group of people, just different faces.
Can you tell me more about the relationship between Local 712 and KSWOC?
Glen and I have been on multiple coordination Zoom calls with them over the summer, trying to plan out their course of action. Nick asks occasionally for some advice or if I have any ideas for ways to put pressure on the college to get recognition.
When they delivered a [demand letter to the administration] and had a gathering of people, Bob and I and a few others were at that. They had an informational picket just last week and there were a few of us present at that. Whether we have to move stuff around and help them, there’s been offers from both Bob and I and a couple others that if they ever need any help inside our work hours, we’re willing to take some time off, vacation time, or personal time, we would help that way if we can or are needed. From the young people I’ve met, just participating in it a little bit, it seems like they’ve got a very good group going, a lot of levelheaded young folks. The Zoom calls have been very informational.
Why do you find it important to have solidarity between your organizing efforts and the undergraduate workers’ organizing efforts?
I just feel that it’s hugely important across the board to have solidarity between different groups of workers, because the more solidarity you have in one location, the better chances you have of moving mountains. It’s good that we have this ability to return the favor to these students, but I’ve always been a firm believer that union shops are the way to go in terms of having a voice and the ability to say no to the boss, whether it’s on taking your retirement away for a year or changes in insurance or changes in wages, without a union you basically have no choice but to accept it or go find a new job. I’ve went all over the place with the UE organizing and I feel it’s important that people have the right to join a union, and I think that unions do good things for people.
I agree with what Bob said. I spoke to a couple students when we were uptown walking and I said, “It’s not if they’re going to recognize you, it’s when. Just don’t lose hope. You’ve got a lot of good people in your group. You’ve got a lot of people outside your group pulling for you. Don’t lose focus. Don’t lose hope.”
What advice would you give to undergraduate student workers on other campuses seeking to organize?
Talk to Nick and Sally and Sigal, the students from KSWOC, because I’ve never, in all my time being union, seen a small group of people pull together an organizing campaign as quick and efficient as they have. They definitely did their homework. And as far as students doing it on a campus like this, it’s a lot different from the typical organizing I’ve been involved with where you’re standing at an entrance to a factory, where you’re handing out leaflets or knocking on doors. Most of this has been done remotely or over social media. So the KSWOC people are experts on this and they’d be the ones to consult if someone was thinking of doing this on their campus.
Their whole group are pioneers for what they’re doing. They are blazing the trails for the future generations at different remote locations having this drive. It can be a game changer for a lot of people. I know from talking to a lot of the students personally, a lot of them took a real hit during COVID — how they didn’t get their time and everything else. We know next time it will be a whole different picture.
Never give up. This has been pulled together at a time where there has been social distancing, where some of them have been remote. It’s been pulled together so efficiently that they’re really blazing some new trails here. Let’s hope that it’s a good, rapid, expanding fire.