After reports that the College threatened to call law enforcement on picketing members of the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) and accused them of damaging property on Thursday, April 29 — the fourth day of their ongoing strike — K-SWOC filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the College with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on April 30.
K-SWOC steering committee member Nick Becker ’22 found the College’s actions last Thursday disheartening. “This shows that — from the administration’s perspective — there is no room for dissent on this campus,” he said.
In a news bulletin sent in response to last Thursday’s protests which took place outside two information sessions, the College claimed that students violated the protest policy, specifically its ban on disruptive behavior. According to the policy — which was last revised in 2018, — such behavior is defined as that which “substantially obstructs, impairs, or interferes with” College activities, such as meetings, classes or other community events.
K-SWOC refuted the College’s claims in a point-by-point response posted to its website on Tuesday, asserting that it is not subject to the College’s protest policy under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). According to documents given to the Collegian by former Campus Senate member Dan Napsha ’21, a clause included in several initial drafts of the protest policy stipulated that it did not apply to unions. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, who was Campus Senate co-chair in 2018, said in an email to the Collegian that original drafts had “excluded union protests because unions are subject to labor laws that would not fit a College policy.”
According to a press release sent out Monday, the group filed ULP charges with the NLRB on Friday over “retaliatory behaviors” against student workers who were striking for union recognition, citing Campus Safety officers’ threats towards picketers, among other things. It based the charges on three counts: illegal surveillance, threats of retaliation and questioning employees about union activities.
The current strike comes nearly a year after student workers started organizing a union drive. K-SWOC initially requested the College’s recognition in August, and shortly after reported that a majority of student workers had signed union cards. However, Kenyon ultimately denied this recognition request in mid-December. Should the College grant K-SWOC recognition, the group would become the first comprehensive undergraduate union in United States history.
Just two weeks ago, K-SWOC made another attempt towards recognition, and asked the College to agree to a community election that would allow student workers to vote on a union. The College denied this request, setting off the most recent round of protests.
The current strike comes less than two months after K-SWOC authorized a one-day work stoppage for five student workplaces, which made history as the first undergraduate strike in the U.S. The current strike was extended on Friday and is now on its 11th day. As of Wednesday afternoon, 165 student workers from shops across the College had signed a document committing to the strike. Becker said that the group’s strike fund — donations used to cover lost wages during the strike — has been increasing since the strike began and has sufficiently covered all wages of striking workers at the College’s highest student employment pay tier, which is just over $11 per hour.
Hayden Schortman ’08, a field organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) — which K-SWOC hopes to officially be represented by — said he has never seen a non-union strike with majority workforce participation that has lasted this long. “A majority, non-union strike is exceptionally rare,” he said. “One that goes for longer than a day is essentially unheard of.”
Last Thursday’s events seemed to follow the high tensions of Wednesday, when strikers demanded to speak with President Sean Decatur by occupying his office for nearly an hour and a half. The occupation concluded with Decatur inviting the strikers to continue the conversation the following evening. However, he cancelled this meeting less than an hour before it was scheduled to occur, and 30 minutes before a news bulletin was sent out.
Decatur explained that his decision to cancel the meeting was a result of last Thursday’s events.
“[It] really violated that sense of trust and the ability to have that same kind of open dialogue,” he said. “[The meeting] no longer felt appropriate.”
Timeline of Thursday’s Events
Last Thursday morning, K-SWOC continued its picketing on Peirce Lawn before proceeding to march around campus in the early afternoon. According to K-SWOC members, a group of picketers went into the lobby outside of the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater, where the Office of Admissions was holding an information session for admitted students. They continued chanting and reading testimonials with a bullhorn outside of the Theater where the session was being held, but did not enter. Members estimate they were in the Gallery for 20 to 30 minutes.
For the most part, the College’s account of this incident aligned with K-SWOC’s account, although it did not note whether picketers had entered the event; rather, Kenyon only said that picketers had disrupted the event. “These actions were deeply intimidating to both our guests and admissions staff, who called for assistance,” last Thursday’s news bulletin read. “Campus Safety followed their usual protocol. They ensured that the strikers had left the building, and allowed them to continue their protest outside.”
Vice President for Communications Janet Lape Marsden later noted in an email to the Collegian that Campus Safety officers arrived as the strikers were leaving the Gallery, after being called by admissions staff. K-SWOC members also said that they left the building without being asked, and were on Middle Path when Assistant Director of Campus Safety Todd Bell approached them. He told the picketers that the College protest policy prevents students from disrupting College operations, and said they could continue outside. K-SWOC members told Bell that their efforts were not subject to this policy, as union protests are protected by the National Labor Relations Act.
The group then made their way to the Kenyon Inn, where another information session was taking place, and continued their chants in the Kenyon Inn parking lot, with Campus Safety officers still following them. While the College and K-SWOC agreed that picketers chanted through a bullhorn in the parking lot, Marsden said that members banged on the windows “to disrupt the admissions meeting.” K-SWOC member April Murphy ’22 refuted the latter assertion, and said that, although they had been picketing outside the information session, they left soon after.
“Each time we moved locations, it was on our own prerogative, because we weren’t intentionally trying to be like a pain in the community’s side,” Murphy said. “There’s a difference between wanting people to be informed and being disruptive.”
When asked to comment on the Office of Admissions’ perspective on these events, neither Vice President of Enrollment Management & Dean of Admissions Diane Anci nor Associate Director of Admissions Jack Eyre responded to the Collegian’s requests for comment.
With Campus Safety officers following, picketers proceeded to Gund Commons. After walking through the building for a couple of minutes, they continued to hold signs and chant outside the offices of Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 and Dean of Campus Life Laura Kane, both of whom watched through glass windows. At that point, Becker said that four to five Campus Safety officers approached them and demanded to see their K-Cards. K-SWOC members Murphy, Becker and Djibril Branche ’23 said that the officers threatened to call the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KSCO) if they did not hand over their K-Cards. They also said that officers took pictures of them with their phones while this was happening.
Murphy was the only picketer to comply. “I myself was near the edge of the group and was really quickly cornered by one particularly large and aggressive officer, who immediately made me feel completely unsafe. He demanded that I hand over my K-Card, which I did, because I was scared shitless,” she said.
The College denied that Campus Safety made threats of arrest; it did not comment on whether Campus Safety made threats to call law enforcement. “Claims that Campus Safety officers threatened students with arrest are simply false,” last Thursday’s news bulletin read. “Campus Safety acted appropriately to protect the safety of our students, staff and prospective families, while respecting the rights of peaceful protesters.”
According to Lieutenant Timothy Light of KCSO, the deputy in Gambier did not receive any calls in regards to protest activity in or near Gambier that day.
Property Damage Accusations
In recounting the College’s perspective on the day’s events, the news bulletin claimed that “[s]ome strikers engaged in threatening conduct toward Kenyon staff and damaged an exterior door of the Office of Campus Safety.” It did not offer any details about which door was damaged.
The College claims that the door was damaged last Thursday, and an image of the east side exterior, which showed part of the frame ripped off and stripped of nails, subsequently circulated on social media.
Notably, the side door is not in view of any security cameras. Hayden speculated that the absence of a camera would play into the College’s accusations, specifically in relation to K-SWOC’s protest in the Kenyon Inn’s parking lot behind the building. He suggested that the front camera would only capture protestors entering and exiting the parking lot.
J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology Ed Schortman, who has advised members of K-SWOC through their yearlong efforts and personally examined the door in question last Thursday evening, suspected that this kind of damage would have required “a lot of force.”
“You would have to get some kind of tool to get into that door. To then pry it out to get your fingers in there… It would make a lot of noise,” he said. “It just seems that it’s an unlikely thing that a group of students were literally just walking past [and broke the door].”
K-SWOC members firmly denied the property damage allegations. They noted that they passed by the Campus Safety office during their picketing at the Kenyon Inn, but did not engage in vandalism.
“[There was] no one near that door,” Branche said. “That [accusation was] completely out of left field. It was like they pulled something out of a hat.”
According to Work Order Clerk Paula Morrison, one work order was filed last Thursday in regards to the Campus Safety office building, but it was relating to the main entrance and not the side door. “There are no WOs referring to the ‘incident’ that occurred at Campus Safety,” Morrison wrote in an email to the Collegian.
When asked about the damage, several senior staff members declined to comment, including Bonham, Kane, Decatur and Sweazey. Senior members of the Maintenance Department also declined to comment, including Director of Facility Operations Rebecca Lanter and Manager of Building Maintenance Trades Mike Itschner. The group cited the ongoing litigation of K-SWOC’s charges, using nearly identical language.
On Wednesday afternoon, Marsden added in an email to the Collegian that Kenyon “is not in a position to share its evidence outside of [the legal] proceeding.”
These charges are based on protections included in Section 7 and Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. Notably, Section 7 gives employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Section 8(a)(1) — upon which K-SWOC based their charges — states that a ULP occurs if an employer acts “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the Act.”
Hayden said that K-SWOC is currently waiting for an investigator to be assigned to their case. After this happens, he said the NLRB will take witness statements from both sides before making a decision. If the NLRB finds that K-SWOC’s allegations are true, they will prosecute the case.
“Usually, at that point, 98% of these things get settled, because there are no real financial penalties,” Hayden said. “So in terms of what it means … Kenyon would say, ‘We’re sorry we sent security to the picket line, it was a lawful picket, we won’t do it again.’”
In addition to these ULP charges, K-SWOC announced via Instagram on Wednesday that it had filed wage theft complaints with the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Wage and Hour Administration in regards to the Community Advisors (CAs).
The complaints were in relation to several minimum wage and overtime violations that constitute “systemic and significant underpayment of CAs for the essential labor they perform for the College,” according to K-SWOC.
CAs are required to record 18 hours on their time sheet regardless of extra time spent on the job, including responding to emergencies and counseling their residents. In addition, CAs are currently only paid for 25% of the 10 hours — from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. — that they have to be in their residences for duty rounds, according to a K-SWOC Instagram post.
Hayden said that CAs are looking at $11,000 in wage theft, and “some [CAs] are claiming up to $17,000, if not $20[,000].”
In the College’s first public comment on last Thursday’s events in almost a week, Decatur sent out a news bulletin Wednesday, sharing his thoughts on the state of the community and unions more broadly.
“As Kenyon’s president, I own a share of responsibility for the erosion of trust we have experienced in these times. But the responsibility is not mine alone. Neither is the path to community repair,” Decatur wrote. He proceeded to say that, although strikes have played a significant role in his life, he feels differently about K-SWOC. “I believe in and understand the importance of unions, and at the same time I continue to believe that a wall-to-wall union of student workers is not appropriate for an undergraduate college,” he said.
Later that afternoon, Becker — speaking on his own behalf — wrote a Student-Info email in response, refuting Decatur’s arguments point-by -point.
“President Decatur, your love and care for this community is unquestionable,” Becker concluded. “I hope you, in turn, recognize that student workers are on strike because we love and care about this community just as much as you do.”