Dartmouth Undergraduate Workers Are Unionizing
Undergraduate student workers at Dartmouth are forming a union. Jacobin spoke to five student workers and union organizers about how the campaign started, what they’ve won so far, and how other student workers across the country can organize campus labor.
- Interview by
- Leena Yumeen
On January 5, student workers at Dartmouth Dining Services (DDS) at Dartmouth College announced their intent to unionize. Since then, they have won a temporary 50 percent raise for DDS student workers and secured COVID-19 sick pay for all Dartmouth student workers. In February, they reached an election agreement with the college’s administration. On March 31, they will vote in a union election.
Their organizing is the latest in a wave of undergraduate student worker organizing and follows in the steps of campaigns at Kenyon College and Columbia University. Leena Yumeen spoke with student workers Nadine Formiga, Ian Scott, Alejandro Morales, Sheen Kim, and Kaya Colakoglu about the campaign’s timeline and strategies. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
The fall semester was the first time that campus had a full student body since the pandemic’s beginning. This year, Dartmouth accepted four hundred more students than normal into the class of 2025. Student workers were overloaded, especially for the first couple of weeks. Novack Cafe is the biggest student worker dining location, and it was overrun by students because there were no other dining locations open.
We had so few workers, especially with everyone getting sick from COVID. Shifts were understaffed. No one wanted to work. We regularly had one to three people missing from four- to five-person shifts. I used to work twenty hours a week, and I cut down to six hours a week from all the stress.
Working within those conditions was very overwhelming, but student workers felt hopeless. COVID was another layer of stress. The administration did not care much about it.
Most of the employees are first generation, low-income students, many of which are also undocumented or international students. In the rest of Hanover, the minimum wage is $15, but the base wage at Novack was $13 in the fall. Some people might argue that student workers should find other jobs, but international students and undocumented students can’t go find another job. They have to work at some place in the college.
At Novack, we had many meetings with our managers over the term to state our frustrations. We were constantly stonewalled and met with the response that there was nothing they could do. Eventually, after pressuring our manager, we were able to get a $2 raise. But we realized that we needed the ability to properly bargain for ourselves without needing a manager as a middleman.
I work at the Class 1963 Commons, the main cafeteria, and the dish room. Most of the students working there are people of color, black, or international. On certain days, a contracting group brings in Brazilian migrant workers to work in the dish room. There are a lot of people of color in the actual workforce, but the upper management is almost all white. It is very physically demanding labor — you work long shifts and clean the dishes that come through, service stations where people get food, and parts of the cafeteria. People often go out of their way to make the biggest mess possible. I’ve seen tables where people have poured honey all over them and let it dry, and I’ve had to scrape that off.
Our campaign encompasses Dartmouth Dining Services (DDS), but library workers, tutors, and resident advisors have also been in the thick of it. The union pressure has won COVID sick pay for all student workers, as well as a $1 to $2 wage raise for DDS workers. It makes us think so much is possible for all workers through the union.
What was the impetus for you to begin organizing a union?
We began organizing around the sixth week of the fall term. We had a particularly stressful meeting during which we explained our demands to upper management and were met with the same excuses and claims of powerlessness. After that point, a lot of student managers and I drafted a document saying, “We need better conditions or we’re going to organize something like a strike.”
Before that, I had joked to Kaya at a Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) meeting that Novack DDS workers were angry and there was a possibility for a strike. He asked why it was a joke rather than a serious thought. Later, I went to Kaya to ask what resources the chapter had to help us, and he said, “Well, the first thing you should do is unionize so that you’re protected. ” And now we’re here.
When YDSA saw the document that Novack workers had prepared with demands around COVID-related safety precautions and working conditions, we had a meeting that night with student workers. We spoke about previous unionization campaigns, like the one at Kenyon. Sheen and I were at a YDSA event last spring with Kenyon where they explained their own process, experiences, and how their student worker unionization campaign was possible last fall. I also talked to the Grinnell Undergraduate Union, which is another dining union.
There was a reservoir of knowledge about the possibility of undergraduate organizing and its efficacy in bringing labor issues to the forefront. For instance, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (KSWOC) is all that Kenyon College’s newspaper talks about. It has been one of the biggest issues on their campus since fall 2020.
We sat down and asked, “Can we organize people to actually go through with a union drive?”
One question that came up was about the scope of our organizing. KSWOC is a wall-to-wall union that seeks to represent all student workers. Kenyon has about five to six hundred student workers. Dartmouth has around seventeen hundred student workers, and that number includes people who conduct research and are funded by that research. Seventeen hundred people would be a beast to organize. Instead, we decided to organize all the dining services locations.
Although this started at Novack Cafe, we decided to expand it to all the dining locations on campus. This was strategic because there is power in numbers, and workers across these locations are mobile. Students sometimes work in one location for one term and then move to another location for the next term. This mobility creates cohesion across DDS.
How many people will be represented by the union if and when you win?
During any given term, there are about a hundred fifty student workers at Dartmouth Dining Services locations. It will be around that number.
Can you describe the timeline of the campaign, starting from when you had this initial meeting about unionizing to your decision to move forward with an election?
We started around week six of the fall term. Once we decided to organize, we began one-on-one conversations to try to get them on board. We tried to be as secretive as possible. We did not use the word “union” unless we were having in-person conversations or phone calls. There are questions as to how well we were able to maintain that secrecy, especially given the $1 to $2 rise that came right after we began seriously organizing. During the winter break, we continued these one-on-ones to get people on board. At some point, we reached around 70 percent support among workers.
It was actually rather easy. For those our age and of the demographics that work at DDS locations, a lot has happened over the past years to warm people up to the idea of a union. When we said “union,” most people were already on board. This was especially the case for college students who, because of their class background or other factors, are also workers.
Over the winter break period, we reached out to organizers from KSWOC and United Electrical (UE). They helped us greatly through the baby steps, including the logistics of setting up a union, advocating for it, and timing out card signings. That period was essentially preparation.
We went public on January 5, the second day of our winter term, with a letter that asked for two things: sick pay and voluntary recognition through a card check agreement. We originally gave the administration a two-week deadline to respond. The college extended that deadline by ten days. Throughout January, we continued organizing. We held a very highly attended in-person event to deliver our petition, and we continued having meetings.
Along the way, we won concessions. The first concession was a temporary hazard pay of about 50 percent, which raised the current base pay of student workers at DDS locations to around $20. On January 27, the day just before the administration rejected our voluntary recognition, we won sick pay for all student workers. This was our demand from day one, since nearly all student workers are exposed to COVID. On January 28, our voluntary recognition request got rejected, but the college said, “We can sit down and talk about election stipulations.”
Throughout the process of waiting for the college to respond to our letter, we were unsure when we should file for the union. We did not want the process to be delayed, because terms at Dartmouth are shorter, but the administration pushed back the process.
We had a meeting with our lawyer, Tim Belcher, to discuss what we should do and when we should file for the election. We reached the conclusion that we would file after giving them some days to have a meeting with us. We said, “We are going to have this many meetings by the first week of February, but we are going to file in that first week.”
How has the administration retaliated against you all throughout the campaign, and how have you overcome that retaliation?
When it comes to student campaigns, Dartmouth has a history of letting them die out by delaying them and waiting for students to graduate. To give it some credit, the Dartmouth administration has not been as oppositional as it could have been. In contrast to Kenyon’s administration, Dartmouth’s administration did sit down with us to negotiate. It has, however, hired the firm Morgan, Brown & Joy, which also represented Harvard against their graduate workers.
Dartmouth’s administration has agreed to neutrality and they aren’t being hostile, but they are delaying the process. We delayed filing because of the wait to meet with them. There have also been problems over unit definition: Dartmouth tried to cut managers out of the equation and add conditions on for other workers. They had previously said that if the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth achieved majority status, they would work with us.
When you look at Harvard, NYU, and Columbia — some of Dartmouth’s peer institutions — you see that when the administration tries to fight, it loses. They can try to drag the campus into a divisive and costly battle, but in the end the unions are here to stay. We try to get that point across: we are going to win this union one way or the other.
Dartmouth also faces a massive labor shortage in the Upper Valley. We are in solidarity with other full-time dining staff workers that are organized with an SEIU [Service Employees International Union] local. We have received support from a labor-faith coalition, which includes several clergy from around New Hampshire who wrote a letter to the Dartmouth administration generally saying, “As a community, we are watching, we are eager to hear your response, and we hope that you voluntarily recognize the student workers’ union.”
Dartmouth did not end up voluntarily recognizing. But there are many things that hinder their retaliation, such as the labor shortage and their reputationally precarious position based on a recent lawsuit that alleges that they were colluding with several other colleges to draw down financial aid.
When at some point Dartmouth College had seven hundred cases of COVID, Five Guys paid more down the street, and they made 2 billion during the pandemic… people are recognizing the hell that workers are going through. Workers are also winning all across the nation. It is just not the fight that the administration wants to take.
They have offered some appeasements. Not long after we started organizing in the fall, Novack workers were given a raise. Then, a short time after we went public, we got around a 50 percent raise. When they rejected voluntary recognition, they conceded on sick pay, a win which applied to all student workers.
All these things happened without any communication with us but obviously came as a result of our organizing. They’re trying to peel people off our campaign. It feels that they are trying to create a situation wherein people have their needs met and don’t feel the need to organize further.
What has been your messaging to the administration and the broader student body, and how has the student body responded to your efforts as student workers?
We sent a letter to the administration on January 5. That letter received around eight hundred signatures from students and alumni alone, not including the hundred faculty members and over thirty organizations that also signed on.
We have been saying that a union is better not just for the student workers, but also for all other students on campus. Everyone would benefit from shorter lines at Novack and if the workers had better conditions. We gained a lot of support through that letter and efforts like our town hall.
During the pandemic and for the entirety of the last year, students have been dissatisfied with the way that Dartmouth has managed its resources. Within YDSA, there has been an austerity regime at Dartmouth since the early 2010s. This austerity regime is tied to the college’s gigantic endowment. The school’s ties to massive funds and financial capital brings with it austerity, even if those funds clearly grow day after day. Universities and colleges have become appendages to their endowments, and their endowments have become entities of their own.
If the administration does not start putting the community, students, and workers first before the “longevity and sustainability” of the endowment, then the community will be unsustainable. The endowment is an ambiguous mess of financial capital that used to be invested in South African apartheid and fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Dartmouth has failed to invest properly in solutions for students’ mental health issues during the pandemic.
We have tied our organizing to that reality and said that the union is going to be a channel for student power. We are going to advocate for student workers within our union, which has no intention of staying within the limited boxes of wage negotiations, push for positive change on our campus around mental health issues, and alleviate housing injustice and homelessness through investment within the entire valley.
Have you thought about what you would want included in your first contract once that is negotiated?
The college has already shown us some of the things it can do. We want to make the 50 percent pay raise permanent for student workers. We have seen how positive that can be in the workplace just by the sheer productivity rate increase. Workers actually fill empty spots because they feel that they are being more fairly compensated. We also keep the COVID sick pay. For any other demands, we are waiting until we get to the contract first. Additional demands will be decided with the entire union weighing in.
Who has been leading the organizing effort?
We have an organizing committee that attends legal meetings and does a lot of work, but the workers are really the ones leading this. The organizing committee is open to any workers who want to join. There are no requirements except to have the time to be able to support the campaign on top of everything else that a Dartmouth student has to deal with.
Have you had any guidance from local unions or other unions? If so, what has that guidance looked like?
We have a great relationship with the local union. We have a local chapter of the SEIU here on campus. They represent all nonacademic and nonstudent staff, which includes janitors, dining services, and carpenters. A couple of days after we went public, we met with the chapter president Chris Peck. He voiced full support for us. We have also been talking to another organizer, David Holt, from SEA [State Employees’ Association]/SEIU.
Through them, we were connected to this large network called New Hampshire Faith and Labor Coalition. There are a lot of clergy in New Hampshire who have been involved in labor organizing for decades and built up this coalition around that intersection. Between SEA/SEIU and the New Hampshire Faith and Labor Coalition, we got great local support. The New Hampshire Faith and Labor Coalition wrote an open letter to Dartmouth back when we first announced urging them to voluntarily recognize us and make the process fair and speedy.
Other unions in the region are ready to provide support if there are more issues around stalling or if, later down the line during contract bargaining, we reach roadblocks where talks are no longer viable. It has filled us with confidence to be working with people who have been in the labor realm for decades and to come into labor organizing with strong guides and words of encouragement.
They also provide warnings. SEIU has dealt with Dartmouth and lawyers from Morgan, Brown & Joy before. We talk to them about the tactics that Dartmouth is employing in meetings and ask, “Are we going crazy, or are we really experiencing this right now?” And they respond, “Yes, these are classic tactics.” At every juncture, KSWOC has helped us understand how to organize people, but SEA has that intimate knowledge of Dartmouth that really helps us better deal with the administration on this level.
We work side by side with these people. In dining services locations, we perform the very same labor and duties as full-time, nonstudent workers. And they are represented by the union. For some time now, student labor has been used as a fluid, unprotected, and underpaid form of labor that helps draw down union power by drawing down wages and employment. The college pays student workers less, which they can show during contract negotiations with other workers and say, “These students are doing the same jobs and we’re paying them $13 to $18 per hour. We’re paying you $19 to $20, so you should be grateful.” Our wage becomes the floor wage.
Organizing students will have a chain effect on the entire labor ecosystem in Dartmouth and the Upper Valley. The administration won’t be able to point to student workers and say, “We’re paying them this much less than you.” Graduate students might look at our organizing and think about possible increases in their own stipends. People in the Upper Valley might point to Dartmouth and say, “They are paying this much for the same job,” and fight for better wages. One of the greatest acts of labor solidarity is organizing yourself and joining the labor movement that way.
What other organizations are you connected with on your campus? How has coalition-building supported the success of your campaign so far?
We received a lot of support from student-led organizations on campus ranging from Greek houses to Sunrise Dartmouth, the local farm club, and the Dartmouth Afro-American Society.
The Student Assembly also signed onto our letter and sent out our statement to the entire student worker population. We built a coalition by using the networks we already had. Student workers here and there were members of various organizations and reached out to them. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
I am on the board for the Afro-American Society, and we do general body meetings with the black community on campus every other week. We used one of those meeting times to have a presentation on the union. We connected this union push at Dartmouth and labor organizing more broadly to black power and racial justice, noting the historical participation and leadership of black people within labor movements.
A lot of black students, particularly black students that are working class, work at DDS because it is part of their financial aid agreement to have a job. Those jobs serve the largely rich and white population of students. We articulated how the black community at Dartmouth is concerned with this fight.
We have reached out to entire academic departments and urged them to sign on to our letter. We are asserting that, while student workers are at the forefront, this campaign is really for all workers.
You’ve also alluded to the organizing history of the college and its political economy. What conditions unique to Dartmouth have made this movement possible?
There is a reason that organizing began at Novack Cafe. There is a very interesting dynamic that ties together people that work there. Part of it is friendship, but the unspoken part of that friendship is class solidarity.
One professor noted that when you walk into Novack Cafe, it is a startling sight. You have poor, international people of color on one side behind the counter preparing your coffees. Waiting in line, you have a mass of the stereotypical Dartmouth demographic — the WASPy, top 1 to 10 percent, mostly white student population — asking for their coffees. People who were exposed to this sight day and night ended up having the first impulse to get organized.
Specific locations have particularities in terms of the people who work there and the pay systems. But if you are interested in organizing something like this, you need to map where such a campaign can start and where it seems to be starting.
Dartmouth’s endowment and the money that it has provides such a stark view of the college. They made $2 billion during the pandemic but claim that they can only pay workers a certain amount. It made for a very good point to say, “Look at how much Dartmouth has made.”
But all of these universities and corporations across the nation have all this wealth, and it is simply being stolen from the workers.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced during this campaign and how have you overcome them?
We faced fear when talking to international students during the one-on-one conversations we were doing in the fall. People were scared of what might happen to their visas if they agreed to be represented by the union. It was one of the few instances when people were hesitant about supporting the union drive. We drew examples from Kenyon and Columbia, and told people that Dartmouth cannot do anything to their visas or use the union against them in any way. As soon as we clarified this, they were on board.
What are your immediate next steps?
We want as many workers as possible to come out and vote yes for the union. There is no doubt that we will win the election, but we want to win it resoundingly and show that student workers are involved, enthusiastic for a union, and want to have a say in their futures.
What would you recommend to those at other universities who want to either organize in solidarity with existing unions or organize a union on campus?
For people that are interested in labor organizing on their campus but don’t know what to do about building the energy, right now is the time. Start preparing for things. Leading up to the union effort, those of us in YDSA were talking about labor conditions, researching the labor conditions at Dartmouth, and learning about its austerity regime way back. We also remained aware of what was happening at Kenyon. So when people at Novack were ready to go, they thought, “If there’s anyone we can talk to, it is probably YDSA.”
Whether you are a YDSAer or a student worker, get educated on the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] processes and labor law. Start putting out infographics on social media and have political education meetings to politicize the nature of student work. When the spontaneous moment comes and people are ready to move, you can direct their energy into something that can blossom into a full union campaign rather than fizzle out because it doesn’t have organization behind it.
It’s a lot of work, but many hands make for light work. How far we have gotten in this amount of time can easily be attributed to the hours that people have put in to have meetings, write statements, conduct outreach, and have one-on-one conversations with union members.
The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), which is a collaboration between the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical Workers union, has incredible resources that provide basics on organizing, speaking to workers, and getting a union campaign going.
It is also critical to map your school. How many student workers are there? Are student workers already represented by a union? How do people feel about unions? Which places on your campus are the “notorious” places to work?
This is the perfect moment to organize. You can point to Dartmouth and show that the current temporary wage of student workers at Dartmouth is $21. You can also tell people that the Student Workers of Columbia won a $21 minimum wage for their student workers. Use the successes of Columbia, KSWOC, and Dartmouth to help your organizing.
Can you describe the current working conditions at Dartmouth for student workers?