- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Wednesday, May 10, undergraduate student workers at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, went on strike. The workers are represented by the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW), the first independent undergraduate labor union in the United States. The union says it is going on strike in response to the administration’s refusal to address its contract demands over the pay and working conditions of undergraduate community advisers (CAs), the college’s version of resident advisers (RAs).
After the union announced the strike, workers say, the administration sent an email to the campus community declaring the walkout illegal and threatening workers who participated with retaliation; the union has since filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge. Last week, Jacobin contributor Sara Wexler sat down with two student workers to discuss the situation of Grinnell CAs and why and how they organized to strike.
Could you give some background on your union’s history? Who does UGSDW represent?
Back in 2016, the dining hall won their union election, and the union was established and recognized by the college and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It began exclusively as the union representing the dining workers.
Then in 2018, the union attempted an expansion campaign, but the college, when it heard about this campaign, hired a bunch of union-busting lawyers and got in the way of the expansion election. So the election went to the NLRB. Because it was during Donald Trump’s presidency and he had appointed a bunch of anti-labor and anti-worker people there, we didn’t want the election to go to the board and have it decide against us, and then create a precedent for all other undergraduate students around the country.
So we pulled back on the expansion efforts, and this past spring is when we reached a neutrality agreement with the college. It has a new president now, and I think the president thought this would be a cool opportunity. And I think it is along the lines of, if the college has the first fully independent, fully unionized undergraduate campus in the country, that looks good for its social-justice messaging. So we had a neutrality agreement, we won the expansion, and now we’re here.
UGSDW represents almost all student workers on campus. The only exception would be our student-government association, which is independent and has its own constitution — that would be our student-government president and positions like that. The other exception would be grant-based, fellowship-type work that people are doing that comes from outside revenue sources.
Otherwise we represent everyone. Our student body is about 1,700 people. About seven hundred are officially members. They’ve signed their union cards and they’re in our database, but we represent all student workers on campus, no matter if they have become a member or not. We want to make sure that every student has a voice in what their work looks like and feels like they are being treated fairly.
Why are you all on strike?
We are on strike because the college is not moving to provide us with any of the working conditions that we’re asking for, which includes wage-discrimination policies and sick leave. They’ve been bargaining in bad faith, especially in the past couple days. They’ve been lying to us, using scare tactics to discourage people from striking and protesting their lack of good faith.
The past seven months we’ve been negotiating a contract with the college. So bargaining has been dragging on for a pretty long time now.
We reached a place where the college, especially on economic issues — wages for community advisers and also wages for the whole campus — has been like, “We’re not moving unless you take action.” So we took action for CAs specifically.
CAs are currently compensated with a room grant, which is well-below industry standard, where most of our parent institutions are getting at least room and board. But in the college’s most recent proposal for community advisers, it has proposed to change our compensation to hourly pay with the campus base wage, which right now is at $13.25.
Ultimately, that would be a big pay cut for CAs during the school year. We will get paid training, which is something we’ve never had, so that’s a step in the right direction. But because we won’t have any hour guarantees during the school year, there’s no assurance that we will make anything near the room grant. So we may not be able to cover housing costs anymore.
It’s a slap in the face. Both of us are CAs, and we work hard to keep this community going, both through programming and responding to emergencies and other issues in our community. But the college knows that it doesn’t really need to move on a lot of these issues, because it relies on the first-year class assuming our CA positions, and a lot of the CAs now aren’t returning next year.
The college is a $3 billion institution. It has more than enough money to pay us fairly and pay us even more than that, but it relies on the fact that there will be students who want to help out their community. It’ll search out positions like this. That makes us easier to exploit, because we’re not just doing this for a wage; we’re doing it because we care about the betterment of our fellow students, and we care about having safe and healthy resident communities.
The fact that a lot of people aren’t returning next year is a reflection of how inadequately we are treated. Ultimately, that’s not going to benefit students. That’s not going to benefit the residents’ full-time staff, because they don’t have anyone who has this experience that will keep coming back. They basically have to train a whole new staff every year, rather than keeping people on who have been in the role, who know how to create these relationships that are necessary to build strong hall communities and so on.
The college markets itself off the idea that this is a social-justice institution. It says that this is an incredibly progressive campus, but then the way that it treats its workers, the way that it has conducted itself throughout this bargaining process, has been very antithetical to the values that it puts on the front of its website and that it puts in its mission statements.
Could you give some more detail on CAs’ working conditions and compensation?
The room grant is very nice to have; that’s a good $6,000 that I don’t have to come up with every year. But this year, Grinnell increased the tuition to about $80,000 — who can afford that? So that small grant doesn’t come close to what we need to be able to afford this school and afford rising costs of living.
Even though we’re in a rural area, we depend on the college; it sets the price for everything, which means that we can’t go other places for less expensive housing, less expensive food, things like that. Even most of the wages in town are higher than wages that the college is paying for students on campus. Currently, the base wage on campus is around $8.25 or $8.50 an hour, which is incredibly low. Most jobs don’t make more than $10.
The only jobs that make over $10 are dining jobs — which is because they’ve had this union — and jobs off campus, where you can make $15, close to $20 an hour. But there’s a lot of reasons why students can’t go off campus for jobs. They may have a work-study requirement in their financial-aid package; they may be an international student, so they legally cannot work off campus.
It creates a huge divide within the campus community when it comes to people’s financial backgrounds. There’s a lot of students who are on financial aid who are working their asses off up to the twenty hours that we’re allowed to work per week, and then there’s a lot of students who are fortunate enough to have someone else paying for their tuition and can use that time in other ways.
Also, as community advisers, we’re responsible for creating relationships with residents, looking out for their well-being, and that’s a 24-7 job. That’s not something that I can clock in and clock out of. I think that that puts us in a unique position in terms of compensation, because. . . . How do you compensate someone for twenty-four hours a day? Because we’re on all the time. If a resident tells us something, if they confide in us, we’ll be thinking about that for the next couple days.
The training to be a community adviser here is pretty subpar. We all come into this role because we’re community-minded and we have social skills that will serve our community well. But when responding to mental health crises — which happen here, because it’s in the middle of Iowa and we’re stuck in two square miles — we really are not equipped well to handle these issues at all. The training is super limited; the training is also not stimulating at all.
Another issue is that there is no policy for sick leave. We’re on the job 24-7. So, if we get sick, how do we call out when there’s no sick leave as a community adviser?
Another thing I want to emphasize is that our strike is not just for us. We are tying our demands to the working conditions of all students on campus. If I work in the dining hall and I wake up sick that morning, there’s no process for me to call in and say, “Hey, I’m sick, I can’t come in today.” That should be baseline; every job should have a process for that. But then, especially if you’re working with food and you’re post-COVID, it’s untenable to not have a process for that.
One more thing sticks out to me on why we need to move forward on these issues. One of my good friends is a need-based student, so they’re enrolled in Grinnell College on a full scholarship. But because the college only provides room-grant stipends, my friend was sucked into the CA position and now receives no payment whatsoever. So, they’re working sixteen hours a week, and the college is not moving on compensating this individual for the work they’ve done this entire year, simply because they’re not willing to fund this room-grant stipend in another way.
That ties back to one of our demands for compensation: we want at least room and board, and there needs to be an option for paying a financial equivalent of the stipend. There are students on this campus who would be amazing community advisers, who want to have an opportunity to look out for their peers and create programs and make this a better campus. But because they already have their room and board covered by a scholarship or their financial-aid package, they can’t become community advisers unless they choose to work for free, which is not acceptable.
When did the organizing for the strike start? Were there any specific events or catalysts that led you all to this point?
Whenever you’re bargaining a contract, there’s always the possibility that you could go on strike. Most employers are not just going to give you everything that you ask for. So we’ve been planning for this since we expanded in some ways.
We’ve taken a strategy of escalating action. On the first day of bargaining, we had a button action, where we had everyone in the campus community wear a button that says, “Grinnell Works Because We Do, Fair Contract Now,” and that had our little logo on it.
Then, we’ve had a couple very visible rallies. Grinnell hosts a junior visit day every spring, and that’s when prospective students come in. We held a rally for higher wages that day, and a couple hours after we held the rally, the college called us up, and it was like, “Next bargaining session, we’re talking about wages.” It raised the wage offer about $1.25 from what its prior offer was. So clearly, collective action works.
Then, before spring break, back in March, we hosted a walkout. So we had an evening without student work: at 5:00 p.m. all students walked off the job, or if their shifts started later, they didn’t show up after that. Again, the next bargaining session, Grinnell raised its wage offer again. This communicated to us, one, that we were able to get a good buy-in from the student body and from our membership to participate in a larger-scale strike, and two, that the college would respond to our direct action and that it’ll take our threats seriously.
In the next month or so as we kept bargaining, it became clear that on some of our key issues — like the $15 minimum wage for all student workers in an hourly position, the CA room-and-board grant or the financial stipend, and a process to address workplace harassment and discrimination — the college was not going to move on those.
We decided that this portion of our membership, CAs, seems really bought in; we know we can mobilize them, so we’re going to vote on a strike. We had a strike vote, and now we’re here.
Are all student workers on strike or just the CAs?
CAs primarily are on strike, but a number of other workplaces have committed to striking in solidarity. Union membership as a whole voted and authorized the strike with the knowledge that it would primarily be CAs, but that we’re trying to get as many workplaces to strike in solidarity as well.
How has the Grinnell administration reacted so far? Can you tell me about the ULP charge?
On May 9, the evening before the strike, the college sent an email to the entire campus falsely calling our strike unlawful because we haven’t reached impasse yet, which is not true. You do not need to reach impasse before you declare a strike.
Then in that email, the college threatened to fire and retaliate against people who went on strike and anyone who decided to honor the picket line. That would particularly target our dining workers and then other full-time staff, like custodial staff who were unionized under the Teamsters. In both those contracts, there are no-strike clauses, so they legally can’t strike with the contract. But there’s a provision that says that workers are allowed to individually choose to not cross a picket line and that there wouldn’t be any retaliation. They wouldn’t lose their jobs.
So there was a lot of misinformation being sent to students, faculty, staff, and community members, and a lot of fear and intimidation, with that email. We got on that right away; we tried to clear things up. Yesterday [May 10] we started our strike, and we did a full-day picket just to get visibility and then also to allow our dining workers the choice to not cross the picket line. So they were able to strike in solidarity yesterday, which was pretty cool.
Then this morning [May 11], the college sent union leadership an email that unilaterally falsely and illegally declared impasse. It said, “We’re at impasse. We’re not moving anymore.” That is not the case, because in the most recent bargaining session we had, there were a number of issues and provisions that both parties indicated that they were willing to move on.
Basically, the college has said that it’s not going to bargain with us or even meet with us while we’re on strike. So we filed a ULP this morning, against bargaining in bad faith and intimidation. This is a massive escalation in illegal union busting that’s in line with some tactics that were employed by Temple University’s administration in Temple grad workers’ recent strike.
It’s remarkable to see what effect it has on student workers, because the scare tactics work. When I’ve been talking to my fellow CAs, gauging whether or not they feel comfortable striking, I’m getting the sense that. . . . I’m passionate enough about this issue where I’m OK with possibly losing my room grant; that thought has passed through my head . . .
Which is illegal, by the way. If the college did that, it’d be incredibly illegal.
But for a lot of people, even just the thought of that is unacceptable, and it’s remarkable to see just how scary the administration’s tactics are for a lot of the CAs. It also shows how reliant students are here on their labor, and that the college is, again, disregarding what the students need.
Can you say what’s next?
We are going to continue to strike until the college meets our demands. That’s first and foremost what we’ll be continuing to do the next two weeks. Also, hopefully that ULP gets resolved soon and comes back in our favor, which would force the college back to the table to negotiate with us. But we will continue to be reaching out to the college, giving it times that we can meet to bargain, and hopefully it meets us at the table.
Just last week, Columbia University’s undergraduate resident advisers won their union election. Have you been in touch with other undergraduate workers?
We’ve been in touch with other undergraduate labor efforts. We were in constant contact with Dartmouth, specifically. Its dining hall won an election by an almost 100 percent margin, and they recently won a $21 base wage. That’s not including experience pay, and I think they have some type of tuition adjustment as well. They have paid sick leave, a ton of things.
They won a lot. So, after we heard what happened, we reached out to them. They won all that with just the threat of a strike. After they sent that strike notification to their university, the university was like, “Let’s come back to the table,” and basically accepted all their demands. We’re in contact with workers at Kenyon as well, who have been attempting to get their union recognized for a long time.
We also have a lot of unions that reach out to us, or a lot of people on undergraduate campuses across the country being like, “We really like what you’re doing; we’d love to hear more about it.” We’re trying to support everyone as much as we possibly can. I’m incredibly motivated and inspired by the path and the momentum that the undergraduate labor movement has taken on these past couple years. It seems like every other day I get a news alert about another undergraduate campus filing an election.
Has organizing and being part of a union changed your perspective on the university?
I feel like none of us came into college so disillusioned, but we knew that the college’s bottom line was its profit and protecting its precious endowment. But that has just become clearer over this process. We ran the numbers the other day, and the cost of giving every CA room and board is about $400,000, which is pocket change compared to the $3 billion that the college has in the bank. That makes its values pretty clear.
I also think that this whole process reaffirmed the importance of collective action and organizing, because I was both on the organizing committee in the union, and I also was part of the bargaining team. I sat at the table during negotiations, and I think I had this this idea that, if you make good points and you back up your arguments and use logic, people have to agree with you. But no matter how good of a debater you are, no matter how good of an orator you are, they don’t have to move, because they have the power. In this situation, we’re college students with no money to our names. So our main tool is our ability to withhold our labor and to organize and put our values into action.
And it’s interesting trying to build unity at a high-level institution, because people are so overwhelmed with homework and what needs to be done to succeed at school here.
Also, at a campus community that’s very stratified in terms of economic situations and racial identity and things like that. We are at a predominantly white institution, and this is a private college, so you have people from incredibly rich backgrounds. Then you also have people who are QuestBridge scholarship recipients, who are on full rides and so on.
It seems like that’s a bit of a strategy that the college relies on, and it’s remarkable to see just how effective that is. I think that’s the case for the undergraduate labor movement across the nation. It requires additional sacrifice to really move large institutions on these issues.
At an institution that has so much money, yet still has students who are food insecure or who are homeless — that’s untenable. If you have the resources, not a single student should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or how they’re going to put a roof over their head, or how they’re going to afford to go here.
College is a really fulfilling experience: there’s so many connections you make with other people — the relationships you build, the knowledge that you’re able to gain. Everyone should be able to take advantage of that no matter what their economic status is.
And everybody should have access to help when they need it instead of being shuffled around. It’s cool to see so many undergrad labor unions start, because it seems like a collective realization that we need to look out for each other.