This past Monday, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union certification election. If recognized, K-SWOC would be the first wall-to-wall undergraduate student worker union in the country.
According to Nick Becker ’22, K-SWOC was waiting to file for an election until this fall — after Joe Biden’s NLRB appointees took their seats. He said if the group had filed for an election earlier, Trump’s appointees could have used the filing as an opportunity to overturn the 2016 Columbia University decision, which guaranteed undergraduate student workers at private institutions the right to unionize.
“The appointees to the National Labor Relations Board under [Trump’s] administration were pretty anti-worker overall, but also very specifically anti-student worker,” Becker said.
In the interim, K-SWOC attempted to gain voluntary recognition. K-SWOC first went public in August 2020 when it called for voluntary recognition via a card check, and was rejected three months later by the Board of Trustees. Last spring, K-SWOC called for a community election and was again rejected by the Board.
This year, 60% of Kenyon’s student workers have signed union cards with K-SWOC, and have worked together to strategize, vote on financial decisions, discuss workplace issues and pursue potential solutions regarding fair student labor.
K-SWOC members made the decision to file for election and petition the NLRB for union certification in a 137-1 vote at a general membership meeting last Thursday. In accordance with NLRB procedure to deliver official notice to the employer, K-SWOC announced their filing in a community message and at an event in front of Ransom Hall at 4:15 p.m. on Monday. If K-SWOC is recognized through this election, Kenyon student workers will be represented under the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) for purposes of collective bargaining.
“That’s not a contract negotiation. It’s basically just an agreement to move forward with the election without undue delays,” Becker said. “And I think what we’re asking [the College] now, [which] is also in our community message, is to abide by shared fair election principles.”
Emphasizing the importance of the petition, K-SWOC member Ilan Magnani ’24 said that it represents the culmination of K-SWOC’s efforts. “This petition signals that KSWOC is not merely an advocacy group interested in putting up flyers and building general abstract support for unionization, but rather a group of student workers committed to working alongside the College to bargain a legally-binding contract that will ensure better conditions for all student workers, including those not interested in affiliating themselves with the union,” Magnani wrote in an email to the Collegian.
If Kenyon and K-SWOC agree to a stipulated election agreement, the election will then be able to move forward promptly.
However, if Kenyon chooses not to enter into the stipulated election agreement, the NLRB Region 8, which serves northern Ohio, will hold a mandatory hearing within three weeks. The hearing will determine bargaining unit eligibility as well as the election date and details. Kenyon has the next few days to respond to K-SWOC’s request.
According to public records, the College has retained Jones Day, one of the largest law firms in the country, which brought in more than $2 billion in revenue in 2020. The lawyer listed on the filing has expertise in advising employers on issues arising under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Though K-SWOC has not yet received a response from the College regarding their terms, President Sean Decatur said that the College does not yet have the information necessary to determine its path forward.
“I’m still awaiting official word from the NLRB itself, which [we] certainly expect sometime soon, but haven’t received anything yet,” he said, “and [we’re] looking forward to [the NLRB] giving more details that we’ll really need in order to figure out what our response is.”
Kenyon offered an official statement to the Collegian this past week, saying that the administration’s views towards a student union remain largely unchanged. “Our undergraduates are first and foremost students on our campus for four years, and the College believes that it can best fulfill its educational mission, preserve Kenyon’s collaborative environment, and meet students’ financial needs by working directly with students and their families,” the statement read.
Despite the College’s resistance to recognizing them, K-SWOC members remain proud of their work and their mission. “This is no small feat and comes out of the organizing of a number of student workers, especially those who have been with KSWOC since the beginning. I hope that the Kenyon administration will choose to work with rather than against the union via a stipulated election agreement and allow for a vote to be held as soon as possible,” Magnani said.
News Editor Adam Margolis ’22 contributed to reporting.