The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to decline the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee’s (K-SWOC) request for union recognition, according to an email from President Sean Decatur sent to students and employees on Dec. 11, 2020. The Board cited a number of reasons for this decision, emphasizing concerns about collective bargaining and the ability of a union to adequately represent the interests of student workers.
The decision comes on the heels of a months-long initiative led by members of K-SWOC’s steering committee, including multiple requests for recognition to the College. It also follows a semester-long student employment review by Campus Senate and the formation of a special Board committee focused on analyzing the various ways the College provides financial support to students.
Had the student worker collective been recognized by the College, it would have become the nation’s first comprehensive undergraduate union.
Members of the K-SWOC steering committee recalled being disappointed — but not surprised — by the decision. They also described feeling uplifted by the outpouring of support from current and former student workers, which included a letter that drew hundreds of alumni signatures in the hours after the College’s decision came out. The group has received support from faculty and other undergraduate and graduate unions. A majority of student workers — over 200 from seven employment “shops” — have also signed union cards with K-SWOC.
“I think something that’s important to understand is that in a union fight, the employer isn’t the person who gets to decide when the fight is over — the workers are,” steering committee member Nathan Geesing ’21 said. “And the workers have, by a large majority, have chosen to side with K-SWOC in fighting for a union and fighting for things to get better.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues of student employment, such as the College’s often criticized work-study system. Most recently, the work-study system has negatively impacted Writing Center staff, who will now only earn around $160 for the spring semester after their hours were reduced to one per week as a result of budget cuts. Other student workers, such as the Horn Gallery sound technicians, have also been laid off this year. In an effort to improve student employment, the College announced updates to the student work system that will begin in the fall, in response to the Campus Senate’s student employment review and organizing efforts of students during the pandemic.
In laying out the reasons for the Board’s decision, Decatur cited a mismatch between the College’s educational mission and the goals of a union, the “third party” nature of collective bargaining, the diversity of student employment opportunities and interference with “existing governance structures” such as Campus Senate. Decatur also expressed concerns that future generations of student workers would be bound by a union, and said that the Board was concerned about a union interfering with the College’s democratic processes.
“We believe Kenyon’s culture of openness and accessibility would be materially compromised by introducing a union of student workers,” Decatur wrote in the message. “Kenyon has a strong, inclusive, and caring faculty and staff … We believe that putting a union in the middle of these important relationships would dramatically change Kenyon’s educational experience, in ways that would not serve the interests of students, the College, or its faculty and staff.”
K-SWOC responded to this decision on Jan. 8 in an email sent to Decatur, the Board and the student body. In their email, they addressed, point by point, the arguments made by Decatur in his announcement of the decision. They argued against the Board’s claim that unionization would present a mismatch with Kenyon’s educational mission, citing the existence of undergraduate unions at institutions like Grinnell College, and graduate institutions like Yale University and the University of Chicago.
“We are disappointed that the Board expects K-SWOC members to believe the educational value at institutions like the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Grinnell College, and Yale University—a unionized Ivy League graduate program that produced Kenyon’s very own Provost, Professor Jeffrey Bowman—is somehow compromised because their student workers have unionized,” they wrote in their response.
In response to this, President Decatur pointed out that most student unions, like the ones at Columbia and the University of Chicago, are made up of graduate students. “There really isn’t a wall-to-wall student labor union at the undergraduate level in the U.S.,” Decatur said. “So I think that those other examples aren’t quite the same — they’re different different types of unions in different types of institutional contexts.”
In addition, K-SWOC pushed back against the idea that they and other unions are “third party actors” and not a part of the Kenyon community. This designation, they argue, was assigned to K-SWOC by the College in order to create division between K-SWOC members and others in the community. Furthermore, they questioned the College’s respect for unionized staff members already within the community, including most maintenance and skilled trade workers.
“Many members of both the recognized unions on campus and K-SWOC are continuing a multi-generational relationship that is central to Kenyon’s existence as a functioning community. If all of these groups, with their overlapping connections to Kenyon, are outsiders, then who is part of the Kenyon community?” K-SWOC wrote.
K-SWOC also disputed the “grossly misleading assertion” that if Kenyon were to recognize a union now, it would jeopardize the independence and choice of future student workers. “Every workforce in any unionized workplace has the federally-guaranteed right to vote to decertify their union, just as they have the right to form a union in the first place,” they wrote.
In addition, K-SWOC expressed their concern that the Board had made its decision far earlier than the end of the semester and was simply waiting for an opportune moment to announce their decision. They also brought up issues relating to the Board’s transparency, expressing concerns that the College and the Board were shutting out student workers and the rest of the Kenyon community from their decision-making process by not having brought up the concerns until they were published in the letter.
For now, K-SWOC’s principal objective is to exist as a support network for student workers. Their main goal is to continue addressing pressing issues with student work, such as raising money to secure additional personal protective equipment for student workers, including community advisors and other student employees who come in contact with large numbers of people.
Despite this major setback, K-SWOC members remain resolute in their fight for union recognition.
“The Board of Trustees does not get the final word on whether a union will be formed at Kenyon,” K-SWOC wrote. “Student workers do.”