Section: News

College claims Senate employment review came before K-SWOC

College claims Senate employment review came before K-SWOC

BIRHANU T. GESSESE

President Sean Decatur told members of the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) on Oct. 30 that he had assigned Campus Senate the task of reviewing student employment policies in August, before he knew that K-SWOC was trying to unionize students. However, recent evidence suggests this was not the case. 

Over the summer, as part of their contract negotiations, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 712 asked the College for a card-check neutrality agreement for student workers, which would essentially grant K-SWOC union recognition. The College said no to this agreement. 

This was in early July, a few months after K-SWOC began their organizing efforts. However, Decatur claims to have not known about K-SWOC in early August, when he charged Campus Senate with reviewing student employment procedures. 

“On July 13, yourself, Vice President Meredith Harper Bonham, and Vice President Ian Smith received dozens of emails from alumni, students, and faculty demanding card-check neutrality for student workers,” K-SWOC leadership wrote in an email to President Sean Decatur on Nov. 2. 

This contradictory timeline between K-SWOC and senior staff has raised questions about whether the College has made a concerted effort to consider K-SWOC’s hopes for formal recognition as a union. 

Should the College formally recognize K-SWOC, the group would become the nation’s first comprehensive, undergraduate union. K-SWOC has reached majority support from student workers and received endorsements from United States Sens. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown. The Board of Trustees ad hoc committee has said that it will come to a conclusion on K-SWOC’s recognition by the end of the fall semester, at which point Campus Senate will have completed its review of student employment procedures. 

Aside from pointing out the discrepancy in this timeline, K-SWOC’s recent emails to Decatur express the group’s concerns about the ambiguous role of Campus Senate in this process. 

K-SWOC first contacted Decatur with concerns in an email on Oct. 26, in which they suggested the College may be violating student workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which regulates U.S. labor law pertaining to collective bargaining and unfair labor practices.

“Our experiences have fallen short of our expectations of Campus Senate as a representative body for Kenyon students and have raised concerns over potential violations of student workers’ rights,” K-SWOC wrote in an email to Decatur on Oct. 26. 

K-SWOC also stated that the College violated section 8(a)(1), which considers it an unfair labor practice for employers “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the NLRA. Specifically, K-SWOC argued that Campus Senate’s review process was meant to produce a “chilling effect” on their labor organizing by soliciting grievances — with the implication that these solicitations implied future employee benefits — after K-SWOC announced their intention for union recognition. This is explicitly prohibited by the NLRA, unless the employers regularly solicited grievances before the organizing campaign began.

“There have been multiple instances where, in response to student workers bringing up shop-level issues related to fairer pay, just cause protections, COVID-19 safety concerns, and increased mental health support, immediate supervisors and relevant Senior Staff members have told student workers that they will not address or even respond to demands while Campus Senate works through its ‘investigation,’” K-SWOC said in their Oct. 26 email to Decatur.  

K-SWOC also stated in their email that Vice President of Library and Information Services (LBIS) Ron Griggs attempted to direct student workers to Campus Senate during multiple meetings in August, despite the fact that the Senate had not yet been charged with matters of student employment. This instance increased K-SWOC’s suspicions that “the College decided to use Campus Senate to deflect and delay addressing the question of union recognition.”

Decatur stated in his Oct. 30 email that the Campus Senate did not — nor did it ever — have any authority to solicit grievances, promise to address grievances or provide any employment benefits. He said that the Senate did not have any authority to recognize K-SWOC as a union, or to intervene in any way with the relationship between student workers and their employers.

“Needless to say, we strongly disagree with the allegations that you have made in your email about the actions of the College and the Senate,” Decatur wrote in his reply.

K-SWOC also told Decatur that they believe the College is in violation of section 8(a)(2), which prohibits employers from establishing and controlling a “company union.” According to this section, employees have the right to be represented by a union of their choice, and not an organization chosen by their employer.

“Previously, Campus Senate was not seen as a body that could legitimately take on employment issues, whether student workers or any part of the college,” K-SWOC steering committee member Nick Becker ’22 said. “Now it’s suddenly been tasked with fixing the entire system of student employment, and now is seen as a legitimate representative of student workers with the college as the employer.”

In an email to the Collegian, Senate Faculty Co-chair and Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell ’84 noted that the Campus Senate does not have the legislative capacity to officially recognize a student union — such power is vested in Decatur and the Board of Trustees. 

“As such, we have in the past and continue to feel that it is best to remain neutral with regard to union recognition,” Tazewell said. “However, we agree that there are concerns with respect to student employment, and Senate shares the same goal with K-SWOC in finding ways to improve and correct these problems.”

K-SWOC also accused the College of discriminating “against pro-union student workers by denying them the ability to participate in Campus Senate’s deliberative process,” according to their initial email to Decatur on Oct. 26. 

“Simply put, the Senate has refused to allow in members of the union for comment, and it has basically blacklisted any talk of the union,” K-SWOC steering committee member Peter Sachs ’23 said. “It’s anti-union. That is the core of our potential unfair labor practice filing.” 

Former LBIS employee Sofia Alpizar Roman ’21 echoed this frustration. “Many members of K-SWOC have sent an email asking them to include the students in those conversations, and they have given really bad excuses of why they don’t want to,” Roman said. “The open forum they organized was just to listen to issues, and they were framed as single issues that each student was dealing with, rather than looking at student employment in a structural way.”

In response, Senate Student Co-chair Delaney Gallagher ’23 claimed that while K-SWOC is qualified to speak on how the College’s student employment policies impact the student experience, they lack the necessary employment data to comment on the policies themselves. 

“They haven’t really been denied participation,” Gallagher said. “It’s just not been the right circumstances to grant it to them.” 

Tazewell also noted that it is “outside the constitutional nature of Campus Senate” for external members to vote and participate in meetings. He said that the Senate had invited K-SWOC to speak with members of the subcommittee responsible for drafting the recommendations about student employment, although he did not clarify why K-SWOC members were not able to speak with the entire legislative body about their concerns. 

Tazewell did not comment on whether Senate members had been told explicitly not to discuss matters of union recognition. 

K-SWOC feels that the College has nonetheless used the Senate in a way that violates labor laws set forth by the National Labor Relations Board.  

“I think that if we do not see a change in approach or policy from the administration, and we haven’t seen that since President Decatur’s response, then I think we are prepared to file,” Becker said. “But we would like to give them an opportunity to change their approach or policy.”

This discussion will culminate Thursday evening, when the Board of Trustees will meet with members of K-SWOC to discuss union recognition.

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