In a summer that has been defined by acts of social resistance, Kenyon students are taking on the national ethos as they come together to establish the first comprehensive undergraduate student union in the country. If recognized by the College, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) will become a local chapter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).
K-SWOC went public Monday morning with a list of demands — including voluntary recognition from the College — which they delivered in-person as a letter to the Office of the President in a symbolic move. This came after months of organizing and campaigning, ultimately born from a petition created by the Kenyon Young Democratic Socialists (KYDSA) in late March that demanded students workers be compensated for their work during the remote semester.
Following Monday’s reveal, the group began its “week of action,” featuring various events that highlight the experiences of student workers and concluding on Labor Day with a town hall and additional endorsement announcements.
The letter, also shared electronically with President Sean Decatur, presents him and the Board of Trustees with a series of requests including, but by no means limited to: demands for job stability in the form of continuous employment policies, paid sick leave for all student workers, guaranteed jobs for work-study students and the abolishment of the College’s often-criticized wage tier system.
In the letter, members of K-SWOC immediately make clear their purpose for communicating with the administration. “[T]he only way to permanently ensure the representation of student worker interests is through a union that allows student workers to bargain with the College as equals,” they write in the letter. “Therefore, we ask that the College immediately recognize our union of student workers and work swiftly to bargain to a first contract.”
The student activists and workers behind K-SWOC are seeking a “card-check neutrality agreement” with Kenyon. This type of agreement guarantees the College will affirm its neutrality in interactions with student workers. This deviates from the traditional union formation process, where workers elect to have a union vote in private and can be subject to intimidation tactics and in some cases retaliation from employers.
“[The administration has] had opportunities to do that [card-check] in the past and haven’t done it,” said Nathan Geesing ’21, a Writing Center consultant and one of 13 members of K-SWOC’s steering committee. “So that’s why we’re having this big week of action and [a] going public campaign — to let them know that it’s not just a small group of students who want this, it is a united front of student workers at Kenyon. And we’re hoping that that show of solidarity and unity is going to sway their minds.”
A card-check agreement also differs from election-style negotiations — which force employers to enter negotiations immediately — in that the College as the employer must first decide whether to enter into a card-check agreement with K-SWOC. Once the College has granted K-SWOC this “voluntary recognition,” the union can then go about achieving majority support from student workers.
In order to establish a majority, student workers will have to sign authorization forms, or “cards,” stating their interest in being represented by UE. These cards — representing a majority of the student workforce — will then be ratified by a third party, after which the union will be officially recognized under the NLRB.
“An absolute majority of workers — not a majority of who shows up, not a majority of who bothers to vote, but an actual majority of the people who work there — have to show support,” said Hayden Schortman ’08, a field organizer for the UE Local 712 who has been advising K-SWOC in their organizing efforts. “In my experience, it also helps to build a stronger union because of that [majority], because it really does require everybody to have a conversation on what we want this to be, what we want to get out of a union, and [to] be on the same page about it.”
The formation of K-SWOC comes on the heels of a proposed 2019 rule by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which if ratified would rule that student workers at private colleges and universities are not officially employees protected by the National Labor Relations Act (1935). This proposal represents a reversal of the NLRB’s 2016 Columbia University decision, which, according to The Guardian, stated that “student workers at private institutions should be considered employees and have the right to unionize.” The 2019 proposal, although not legally binding, is the third time the NLRB has reversed its stance on the issue since 2000.
If K-SWOC is successful in establishing a union that encompasses all student employees, they will make history. But their path will not be free of adversity. There are currently only two non-comprehensive undergraduate student unions in the country: the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s (UMass Amherst) Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union.
The only other attempt in recent years to create a comprehensive undergraduate student union failed in 2018, when UGSDW attempted to expand their union to all student workers. Though they successfully gained recognition from their regional labor relations board, the union decided to drop their case after Grinnell College appealed the decision to the national courts, which would have passed it to an anti-union, Trump-appointed national board. Had the Grinnell union chosen to continue with their case and lost, the result may have been a hard-line reversal on the Columbia ruling, which would ultimately have impeded any future student unionization efforts.
There is a crucial difference between UGSDW and K-SWOC’s cases: UGSDW pursued a comprehensive student union by means of an election rather than via a card-check agreement. The card-check route, while less common among union organizers, will ensure K-SWOC’s unionization efforts are not contested in the national courts as UGSDW’s were.
According to Schortman, K-SWOC has acquired roughly 200 cards as of this week. “If anything, that is probably an underestimate,” he said, noting that there is some uncertainty with the numbers due to the pandemic, student deferrals and some students holding multiple positions. He added that K-SWOC has been averaging around nine signatures each day since they started collecting cards. He estimates that there are currently around 450 student employee positions, with the caveat that these numbers are fluctuating on a daily basis as new jobs are created and displaced as a result of the pandemic. Schortman also said that K-SWOC has absolute majority support among five employee categories or “shops.”
Despite having not yet received a formal reply from Decatur, members of the K-SWOC steering committee have generally expressed optimism about their prospects, not least because of the support they’ve received from multiple union organizers, faculty, alumni and community members. Some of those supporters include UE Local 712 President Bob Smith, J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology Ed Schortman, Assistant Professor of American Studies and History Francis V. Gourrier, members UMass Amherst’s Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union and several alumni, including Kindra Fontes-May ’14.
UGSDW has also formally endorsed K-SWOC: “UGSDW knows the power of solidarity on campus as well as the strength that comes from a wide network of labor organizations,” the union’s executive board wrote in their endorsement. “We are proud to have Kenyon workers by our side in the growing student labor movement.”
Alasia Destine-DeFreece ’22, who helped organize the Community Advisors to advocate for higher wages over the summer, says that she hopes the College accepts K-SWOC’s demand for recognition.
“A lot of people — and you can hear this from the testimonials — have felt like they’ve been left in the dark when it comes to their jobs,” she said. “And I think that that’s unacceptable. I’m hoping that the school sees it as well.”
President Decatur has indicated that he is willing to cooperate with students in their organizing efforts.
“I certainly do not want to stand in the way or create any barriers to the work that students are doing now to organize,” he told the Collegian Tuesday morning. “We are not going to obstruct the process that folks are undergoing and working on right now.”
While Decatur admitted to having prior knowledge of K-SWOC before they went public, he said he is trying to understand the logistics of labor laws and regulations regarding student employment before formulating a response to K-SWOC. “There are some ways in which I’m getting closer, but … it’s taken me some reading to get to a point where I feel like, ‘okay, I’m almost ready to be able to ask them the right questions,’” he said.
He noted that because a student union would have “big implications for the College,” the Board of Trustees would be included in any negotiation process. He also suggested that input from faculty — especially faculty members who oversee student workers — would be important in determining the College’s next steps.
While they are well-aware of the challenges that lie ahead, K-SWOC remains hopeful that their fellow student workers and the administration members are willing to make history with them as they continue the campaign to unionize.
“I genuinely think, from the bottom of my heart, we live in a place and time that is open to this collective bargaining,” Celina German ’21, member of the K-SWOC steering committee, said. “And I think something that has been so well-circulated and said during our meetings is only the student workers know what they need — no one else can be a representative for someone who is living that experience. And that’s what I think this union will do.”
For more information about K-SWOC, including a schedule of their upcoming events, see their website; they are also on Instagram @KSWOC, on Twitter @KenyonSWOC and on Facebook at KenyonSWOC.