Kenyon Student Workers Are Unionizing. They Say the College Is Fighting Them.
Since 2020, undergraduate student workers at Kenyon College have been trying to unionize. We spoke with workers about what they say are the college’s union-busting tactics and NLRB delays preventing the union election process from moving forward.
- Interview by
- Charlie Muller
In 2020, undergraduate student workers employed at Kenyon College began organizing a union. Since then, the union, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC), has filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification election and gone on strike four times. Kenyon refuses to recognize the union and has employed lawyers from Jones Day, a notorious right-wing union-busting firm, to fight K-SWOC. Student workers say that meanwhile, the NLRB is dragging its feet in holding a unit hearing, which would allow a union certification election to go forward; the delay on the hearing has meant that unfair labor practice charges (ULPs) K-SWOC has filed against the college have not yet been investigated by the NLRB.
Jacobin’s Charlie Muller recently spoke with three K-SWOC worker-organizers about what inspired their organizing, Kenyon’s attempts to stop the union, and how K-SWOC has been supporting and advocating for student workers despite lacking official recognition.
I first heard of K-SWOC when I was working as a Chinese TA [teaching assistant]. I went to a few of our rallies in front of Rosse Hall with the Kenyon student farmers when they [lost their housing near the farm]. I was part of the strike at the end of spring 2022.
The language TAs at Kenyon are not paid at the highest tier, but we are a very essential part of the language program. I’ve heard a lot of my friends and people I know, with their jobs on campus, having a lot of issues. Kenyon has a huge endowment: it’s about $550 million today, but they’re not actually using that money to help students when they face health care issues. There are a lot of things we hope we can change by having a union.
We need a union because we feel, especially recently under the term of [chair of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees] Brackett Denniston, that we as both students and student workers should have a say in our college experience, our work experience, our campus experience. In my four years, Kenyon has raised tuition, which has especially hit lower-income students. I’ve seen cutbacks of support staff, peer counseling, all these things. Our mental health institutions have also been cut back and are drastically behind in terms of counselors per student compared to all the other colleges of our stature — like Oberlin and other small liberal Midwestern arts colleges. We think that we need to have a say in these processes.
One reason I decided to join in the union-fighting process is that, as student workers, we have a vastly different experience from people who are just students here. It takes away from the time that we are able to dedicate toward our academics; depending on our financial position, we are working as well as doing academics. The lack of support there, and the almost negligence of ignoring that it takes away from the time we have available to put toward our academics . . . I feel it is not how it could be. Because of that and the lack of support in other areas, whether it be mental health or other resources, I think that having a union to be able to voice these concerns and have something change, as opposed to a continuation of the status quo, is one reason why I’m fighting for this.
Student workers have been organizing at Kenyon since 2020. How has K-SWOC changed over this time?
Since 2020, it’s changed quite a lot. It’s been two years of fighting for recognition; we’ve had two supermajority union card sign-ups and four strikes. We’ve seen the college respond in the form of hiring Jones Day, one of the most ruthless legal firms in the country.
We wanted this to be a union that can serve every one of the students. We want this union to help people’s lives outside the context of work, like when you’re on shift or when you’re on the clock. To do that, we needed to have an inclusive and representative internal culture. We also broadened the scope of what our vision is and what our demands are for a union. We want to talk about employee health care, bringing up health and safety, incorporating that into our mission. In the face of institutional negligence in terms of health and safety, we’re proactive in doing that.
We’ve started a pilot health care program: we’ve given people access to a doctor for those who feel boxed out by Kenyon’s health system. We’re self-funded, and through doing all this, we try to work around this idea of bargaining for the common good and address community-wide issues that affect every student and every worker here at Kenyon.
For me personally, last summer, there were a lot of things going on. I got a huge amount of support from K-SWOC. I was working at the Kenyon Farm during the summer as a full-time student farmer. I got suspended academically without a warning, without probation, and without a chance of having a hearing. I was also an international student from China, so they were saying, “Because you’re not a full-time student now, you have twenty-one days to leave the country.” So I was at risk of deportation. I was living on campus, so I was evicted from my housing and also got fired from my job.
K-SWOC helped me a lot with the transfer process. I didn’t really know I could just transfer to another college two weeks before fall semester started, but I did make it work. We were talking about if we could have a union and a first contract, and I guess we would be able to make sure the same situation doesn’t befall other students.
Because we have gotten to the point where Kenyon has hired Jones Day to fight against us, we have positioned ourselves to take care of each other and support each other if any of our students face roadblocks. We don’t have the resources that the college has as far as being able to hire an expensive law firm, but we do have each other — and the care for each other is one thing that we have that the Kenyon administration and Jones Day don’t. Because of that, we’re able to watch out for each other and build those connections so that we can continue this fight sustainably and make sure that we come out winning in the end.
Something that became a big story recently: we received an email that a lot of our living complexes have extremely high levels of radon, far beyond what is considered to be unsafe. Radon is the second-biggest cause of cancer outside smoking in this country.
We got an email saying the administration is taking steps and being proactive about it. But they’ve known about this for a long time; it’s not like this came out of nowhere. It took us getting together to make something happen. K-SWOC got together, we bought radon tests — we were the ones who took the initiative to test our homes, and we made this an issue. We showed the university the data, and that’s what got Kenyon to start taking this seriously. I think that showed us a glimpse of what a union or union contract could do for all of us.
What are the goals of your union right now?
As international students, it is mandatory for us to get the Kenyon health insurance, which is pretty expensive. But we also don’t have a full-time physician on campus. If you go to the Cox counseling center, there is usually at least a two-week wait to get to talk to a therapist or counselor. If you want to see the psychiatrist . . . in my experience, I had to wait from late October to early February just to get my first appointment. It’s usually very hard to get an appointment because we only have one for the entire campus.
We are behind our peer institutions when it comes to number of students per health care staff. We want to focus on this health care program. It’s donor supported: people can volunteer to support, and we give people access to a primary care provider. It’s at 100 percent no cost to them. Our goal is fifty student workers enrolled in the program; we have around fourteen already.
In the absence of an institutional, well-structured health care program, we wanted to build our own. We don’t have the resources that Kenyon does, but we can still organize and show Kenyon that we have alternatives. We can show the students that there are alternatives to what we’re doing now, that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Other colleges have incorporated health care into their contracts. Student-worker unions at Columbia and Harvard have won health care funds, and those are the kinds of models that we’ve been working off. Our goal right now is to continue raising funds for the health care program and get more people to sign up. Of course, that’s an inherently valuable thing, even outside the context of a union fighting for a contract.
K-SWOC filed a petition for a union certification election with the NLRB in October 2021. How has the employer responded to this?
Kenyon hired two union-busting Jones Day lawyers. That, as an immediate response, highlighted what Kenyon is focusing on as opposed to what we’re asking for. Instead of having a path toward discussion with K-SWOC, Kenyon went the alternative route of trying to fight us into the ground. That’s not the type of culture that Kenyon prides itself on. One of Kenyon’s brands is being a vibrant community.
Their whole argument of hiring Jones Day is that we as student workers are just students but not workers: we are not “core to the college’s business operations.” For example, if I’m working as a language teaching assistant, I am not working, I’m just helping my peers — and we are supposedly not hired by the college as workers. This is very much not true. We are very important to the college and academics and all the operations.
They also changed the CAs [community advisors; Kenyon’s equivalent to residential advisors or RAs] from hourly pay to a stipend model. It’s essentially to delay our election petition even further. We no longer have the residential housing right next to our farm. So now students have to walk for fifteen to thirty minutes minutes back and forth every day just to care for the livestock. We did not have a chance to even discuss or argue with the college to keep the farm residential program; they also didn’t even give us any notice in advance.
In our ideal world, we would just be like, “We want to form a union,” and then we could have some sort of discussion about it. We could have a discussion between students, teachers, and administrators. Kenyon killed that opportunity right out the gate by lawyering up and hiring Jones Day.
Jones Day — they’re the firm of the radical right. They worked with Donald Trump, they challenged the election results in Pennsylvania back in 2020, they’re stacked with former Trump administration officials, they’ve worked with the NRA [National Rifle Association], and they’ve worked with big opioid distributors like Purdue [Pharma]. It’s morally abhorrent stuff.
I’m pretty sure Kenyon pays about $1,000 an hour for each partner. We don’t know how many hours they bill, but we assume it’s a lot of money that they’re putting into crushing, essentially, a bunch of students trying to have a discussion about a union and their rights in their workplace.
Their legal argument is that student workers are not core to the college’s business operations. Of course, we think that’s flat-out wrong. After they hired Jones Day, we’ve had a lot of changes in working conditions: the elimination of the farm residential program and switching CAs to a stipend model. There have also been cuts; work-pay policies have been changing. It seems like the board of trustees is not really interested in, not just the union, but students even talking about a union.
It also represents where Kenyon’s true values are. I’m much more skeptical of the values that I thought they had when I came in: inclusivity, diversity, open conversations. When you spend $1,000 an hour hiring from a firm that tried to overturn the election for Trump — a firm that is basically made up of foot soldiers for the far right and big corporations — it’s hard. I’m much more skeptical about those platitudes now.
How has the NLRB responded?
We filed the ULP charges during the summer regarding the farm situation. K-SWOC has been told that NLRB Region 8 is waiting for the unit hearing [a preelection hearing with the union and employer to establish jurisdiction and determine bargaining unit appropriateness, usually the last procedural step before a NLRB union certification election] to happen before they can investigate these ULP charges, but a hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet. They’re effectively refusing to enforce labor law at this point.
All student workers on campus are affected, because sometimes they hear their managers say, “The OSHA rules don’t apply here,” where they single out union activists, and it has affected a lot of student workers. I am worried about what will happen if the NLRB keeps on delaying until the next presidential election, which is less than two years away, when the NLRB could switch back to a Republican control.
In terms of the time line and the board’s response to this, it’s just been so slow — like unprecedentedly slow. At our peer institutions and other colleges that have been fighting for unions, such as Dartmouth, Grinnell, Mount Holyoke, Tufts, Barnard, and Brown, student workers have not only been able to file, but they’ve also received unit hearings, and they were able to vote in elections. This has been since we filed, so we are far behind in terms of our process.
Why it’s happening, we’re not 100 percent sure, but we are thinking that there’s a possibility that the NLRB Region 8 is not following the mission of the NLRB as a whole, in terms of investigating whether or not we deserve this hearing and an election.
It took five months for Region 8 to adjudicate a motion to dismiss Jones Day based on spurious claims related to FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act]. Jones Day was claiming that we wouldn’t be able to go forward with an election because it would contradict FERPA, the law that protects the privacy of students. This doesn’t make any sense, because these other colleges that I’ve mentioned have already been able to move forward and they’ve been able to obtain unions. Why is it specifically where we are in Ohio that we aren’t able to move forward with this process?
Five months to adjudicate a motion to dismiss, ten months to set a hearing date . . . I think it’s safe to say from where we’re standing, and based on how long it’s been, that the NLRB in this region is not enforcing its mandate to protect and further the rights of workers. We’re the oldest election petition in the state of Ohio to not receive a unit hearing. We’ve sent many ULPs from many different shops that have not been investigated as yet. This is what leads us to believe that they’re not enforcing their mandate.
We’re asking people to call the NLRB Region 8 director and ask why we’ve been stalled so long, ask why our petition has been delayed for seventeen months, why our ULPs have gone uninvestigated, and what is operating behind this. Then call General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo and ask why the NLRB Region 8 is flouting board case law and policy and acting like Columbia isn’t established law.
How have the delays of the election process affected you and your coworkers?
For me, every day that the NLRB and Jones Day are basically preventing us from being able to have our hearing is a loss of hope and morale. As the process just keeps going on and on and being dragged out and we’re not seeing results, we’re almost losing faith in the system, and having consequences affect us personally — whether it be sicknesses that we have to deal with while also going to work because we don’t want to lose our job, or wanting to make sure that we have this financial security that is always in question because we don’t have the security of a contract to protect us.
In terms of living conditions, we also have a bunch of issues. I’ve heard that people living in the mods [modular housing units on campus] . . . their ceiling was leaking and they have black mold, and there was also the radon issue recently.
The delay just means the status quo is continuing, and the status quo has not been working out for students lately. It also makes it harder to organize, because we’ve had friends ask us, “How is the hearing? How are those ULPs?” The fact that we can’t bring them an answer because of these delays is very disheartening.
How has K-SWOC acted as a union without recognition?
K-SWOC is still present on campus. We have a steward model that we just started last semester to help transfer students and especially first-year students to know what kind of resources we have on campus for them to better transition from high school to college or to Kenyon.
We act as a union in big ways, like the radon testing and the health care program, but also in very small ways. Now people feel open about talking about workplace issues; we work through them, and to the extent that we can, we try to be proactive about them and do the research and try to establish what our rights are, what can we do, how can we use what resources we have. Even in small little ways that may just be, “Someone’s boss said this to them” or “Someone’s boss is treating them like this . . .”
For example, one of my friends had a problem with their boss who cut their hours and pay, and we didn’t know what to do about it. We had a group of people, and all of us went together to the boss’s office to have a discussion. My friend didn’t want to go in alone, because of course when you’re alone and it’s your boss, you can easily get overpowered. But when it’s three of us, it gives support.
Why are you and your coworkers organizing to form a union?