A week after demanding recognition from the College, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) has continued to gain momentum in their efforts to build the nation’s first comprehensive undergraduate student union. At a virtual Town Hall on Labor Day, the group announced endorsements from a number of figures in the labor rights movement, including Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and former Democratic Party presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“We are so grateful to have the support of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown. When we reached out to their offices, it was a shot in the dark. Earning their support was an exciting surprise,” steering committee member Dan Napsha ’21 wrote in an email to the Collegian. “With these endorsements, we hope the College understands the urgency of sitting down with student workers, the importance of addressing our concerns, and the value of a student worker union.”
Apart from these high-profile endorsements, student workers have also experienced remarkable success organizing since last week. According to Napsha, K-SWOC has reached majority support of student employees in the “known universe,” which is “the union term for all the student workplaces within Kenyon of which we are aware.”
More specifically, the group has gained majority support in seven “shops” (employee categories), totaling more than 200 student employees. They indicated this in a second letter demanding recognition from the College, which was delivered to President Sean Decatur’s doorstep on Labor Day.
“A week into our public campaign, more student workers have decided to join the cause,” the steering committee wrote in the letter. “Since we submitted our initial request for recognition, the number of student workers who signed cards increased by 25%.”
K-SWOC’s efforts come at a time when labor issues have been under increasing scrutiny, as the United States grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic that has devastated the economy. Just this week, more than 2,000 members of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan voted to strike in response to the university’s fall reopening plans. Meanwhile, across the country, professors are participating in a “Scholar Strike” to combat racial injustice, underscoring academia’s ability to participate in a collective action that is traditionally confined to blue-collar workers.
Decatur has yet to respond to either of K-SWOC’s demands for recognition, other than to indicate that he will do so after Labor Day. Hayden Schortman ’08, a field organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 712 chapter who has been advising K-SWOC in their organizing efforts, is optimistic about the organization’s prospects. He believes it is likely that if the College agrees to recognize K-SWOC, it will not take long for the group to demonstrate the proof of majority necessary to enter into contract negotiations with the College.
Though Schortman is excited about the number of students who have signed cards indicating their support of a union, he acknowledged that the numbers are still in flux.
“My guess is we would want some time to double-check, to make sure we are comfortably across the finish line in all the places we need to be,” Schortman said, “but I think we’re prepared to have a real conversation about what the union will look like and move forward with [a card-check agreement].”
Schortman also remarked on the incredible speed with which K-SWOC has been able to garner support. After over a decade working in labor organizing, Schortman has “never seen a sign up this fast for a unit this size.” He compared KSWOC’s success in getting worker signatures to his first major campaign, which was “wildly successful by labor standards” but took 2 ½ months to get a majority.
“[K-SWOC has] gotten everything they have since August 11 — it is lightningly fast,” he said. “We’re obviously tapping into something that was already there.”
Members of the K-SWOC steering committee are anxious to receive a reply from Decatur after months of organizing. Part of their second letter requested a meeting with Decatur and any other relevant members of College leadership “to be scheduled as soon as possible.”
“In all different ways, our community is coming to realize the value of a student worker union. We see clearly that a union does not contradict the mission of the College, the values that bound our community, or the broader purpose of a liberal arts education,” the letter’s penultimate paragraph reads. “In fact, we believe a union will help us achieve those highest ideals more fully. On this point, though, any doubt will be cleared not through roundabout ways, but in a conversation with student workers.”
An endorsement video from Sen. Brown can be viewed here and a letter of endorsement from Sen. Sanders can be found here. For more information about K-SWOC, see their website or find them on Instagram @KSWOC, on Twitter @KenyonSWOC and on Facebook as KenyonSWOC.