On Wednesday, Sept. 23, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) met with five Board of Trustees members as well as Provost Jeff Bowman and President Sean Decatur. The meeting is the first formal interaction between K-SWOC and the administration since the group demanded recognition for their union on Aug. 31.
In the meeting, K-SWOC sought union recognition by the College for the third time, and voiced concerns about a number of student employment issues. K-SWOC, though currently unofficial, is represented by the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), an independent and democratic national union. According to K-SWOC leadership, a majority of student workers have signed membership cards with K-SWOC since it began recruiting in early August.
Should the administration recognize K-SWOC as a union, UE would then begin union contract negotiations with Decatur or the Board of Trustees on their behalf. Hayden Schortman ’08, a field organizer for UE, noted that student workers do not have access to the traditional means of achieving a union — an election procedure following labor law. Instead, UE would negotiate for a card-check recognition process.
K-SWOC had initially planned on bringing a UE representative — either President of UE Local 712 Bob Smith or Schortman — to attend the meeting. However, the College did not allow either Schortman or Smith to attend.
“That implies they’re not taking our work seriously, as well as not seeing the legitimacy of the union as a means to make sure that student voices will be heard,” steering committee member Sigal Felber ’21 said of the decision.
According to Alasia Destine-DeFreece ’21, a member of the steering committee and of K-SWOC’s inclusion team, the College was not interested in discussing the group’s demands for recognition at the meeting.
“We did just basically go through all the issues again, letting them know why we wanted to organize in the first place,” Destine-DeFreece said, “but every time we followed up with an ask that they recognize the union, that went largely ignored.”
With their hopes for recognition dashed, K-SWOC continued to raise a number of concerns about student employment, namely how there is no assurance that work-study students receive their required number of work hours, nor is there guaranteed paid sick or mental health leave for students employees.
According to a News Bulletin sent on Monday, the five-member subcommittee that met with K-SWOC was formed by the Board of Trustees to review Kenyon’s financial support of student employees. The committee has been gathering information regarding student workers and their work conditions, and will deliver a report to the full Board later this fall.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Brackett Denniston III ’69 acted as the main facilitator of the meeting between K-SWOC and the administration. In an email to the Collegian, he emphasized the importance of understanding problems before trying to solve them.
“This is a significant matter that requires careful and thoughtful consideration, as it has long-term implications for the College, our faculty and our students,” Denniston wrote.
Denniston noted that the committee met with K-SWOC in order to listen to students and better understand their concerns.
“We are always open to hear student concerns, and we will be thorough and thoughtful in exploring how best to address them,” he added.
Schortman’s feelings on the meeting were mixed. While he viewed the meeting as the College’s first semi-formal acknowledgement of K-SWOC’s existence, he was still concerned that the committee had merely recognized K-SWOC as a student group — not as a union.
“If the committee model worked for addressing these issues, then there wouldn’t be a call for a union of student workers,” he said.
Schortman is not sure where the issue lies for the administration in recognizing K-SWOC. He stated that a union would change the power dynamic between students and the administration, but not completely. He believes some of the administration’s hesitance comes from the fact that there is no precedent for a union of this kind.
“[K-SWOC is] not the first union for private college undergraduates, but [it is] the first one that covers more than one unit [of workers],” Schortman said. “If I were the Board of Trustees, I can understand looking at that … not seeing where the parameters are, because there’s no established model for [this student union].”
For now, K-SWOC aims to continue its organizing efforts, just as it has for the past several months.
“The plan is to go back to our roots,” Destine-DeFreece said. “Continue shop organizing, continue hearing what different workplaces are dealing with now that we’re really in full swing of the semester — hearing what we can do to support them.”
Although K-SWOC and the administration have not yet planned to meet again, the College did announce other efforts to help understand the position of student workers. According to Monday’s News Bulletin, Campus Senate will host a campus-wide forum, moderated by Ombudsperson Carrie Knell, on Oct. 7 at 4:15 p.m. to hear from student workers’ experiences. The Board committee will be present.