On Monday, April 19, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) called on the Board of Trustees to hold a community election for student workers to vote on union recognition.
A community election is a type of union election wherein a mutually agreed upon third party oversees a secret-ballot vote. In this case, all Kenyon student workers, regardless of whether they are members of K-SWOC, would be eligible to vote.
If a majority of student employees voted in favor of the union, K-SWOC would officially be recognized as a union and be represented by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, making it the first comprehensive undergraduate labor union in the country.
Although a first for undergraduates, a community vote among student workers is not completely unprecedented: In 2018, Georgetown University administrators agreed to let the school’s graduate students hold a unionization vote, which they voted in favor of, 555-108.
The call for a community election is the latest in repeated attempts by K-SWOC to officially form a union. K-SWOC first requested union recognition in August when it presented both President Sean Decatur and the Board of Trustees with a letter containing a list of demands and a request for a card-check neutrality agreement, which guarantees the employer’s neutrality in student worker interactions. It then tried again in September. While a majority of student employees signed union cards, the Board ultimately denied K-SWOC’s recognition request in December.
Since then, K-SWOC has continued to rally for recognition from the College. On March 16, K-SWOC authorized a strike for five student workplaces, citing unfair labor practices. Since then, the organization has also responded to conflicts in a variety of student workplaces, most recently in regard to the changes to the Community Advisor (CA) program. The decision to hold a community vote is the latest attempt by K-SWOC to obtain recognition from the College.
When asked about the demand for a community election, Decatur did not offer a comment on K-SWOC’s proposal.
The idea of holding a vote is not a new one for K-SWOC. “We definitely knew this was an option,” K-SWOC steering committee member Nick Becker ’22 explained. “But I guess we didn’t realize that this would be the one that we would have to go with to try to get the College moving.”
Although Becker did not seem enthusiastic about the process, he acknowledged that it is an option that many might be more accustomed to, as opposed to a card-check agreement, which they initially requested. Such an agreement stipulates that after a majority of a group of workers sign union membership cards, the employer agrees to recognize the union and its workers as members.
“People at Kenyon are very civic-minded, especially about voting. I think that really resonates with people.” Becker said. “Again, while I think [the card-check process] is very fair, very transparent, very democratic in a lot of ways, it was something that people probably weren’t really as familiar with.”
Much like a card-check agreement, a community election would give the College the option to decline holding the vote in the first place. The alternative would be to force an election by petitioning the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold one. However, because the NLRB is currently controlled by Trump-era judges who have routinely ruled against organizing efforts from student unions across the country, Becker was adamant that the union is not interested in forcing an NLRB-sanctioned election to take place.
More specifically, in an email to the Collegian, K-SWOC steering committee member Sigal Felber ’21 cited concerns that a NLRB petition could be used as precedent to overturn a 2016 NLRB decision regarding Columbia University graduate students’ unionization effort (364 NLRB No. 90), which held that students employed by private colleges and universities were statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
Holding a community election gives K-SWOC the opportunity to gain union recognition from the College without jeopardizing the precedent set by the Columbia case.
It is not yet clear how long K-SWOC will wait for a response from the Board of Trustees before it considers its next steps. Felber made clear that, regardless of the College’s response, the fight for recognition is far from over.
“Even if [the Board] fail[s] to respond to the demand, they don’t get to decide when we have a union – we do, and we will continue to fight for wages and benefits of workers,” she wrote.