The Kenyon farmers publicly announced that they voted unanimously to authorize an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike, in protest of the recent elimination of Farm residential positions by the College, during a Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) rally held on Monday.
The rally, which was held in front of Ransom Hall, drew a coalition of student workers from a number of on-campus workplaces who showed support. The picket’s attendees gave testimonials and the farmers announced that all six of them had voted in favor of the strike, and called on other student workers to commit to strike in solidarity.
Last week, the farmers met with Provost Jeffrey Bowman and President Sean Decatur after Bowman told the Student Council that the College had consulted with the farmers before alerting them to its decision. In late January, the College told the farmers that it would discontinue the Farm’s signature residential program, which was founded in 2012, this coming fall. In response, the farmers and other K-SWOC and Kenyon community members held a protest across from Cromwell Cottage.
This past fall, the farmers were among the group of student workers, represented by K-SWOC, that filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union certification election. The College and K-SWOC are currently engaged in a legal battle over that petition.
Rose Cobb ’22 spoke first, explaining to the crowd that the farmers felt their labor went unappreciated by the College. She expressed her discontent that the farmers had not been consulted by Kenyon before it decided to end the program.
“We’re consistently used as a marketing tool,” she said. “We also are choosing to strike because, in lieu of them deciding to disband the residential program, we’re expected to continue our duties and be amicable in the face of changes that we were neither consulted on, or approved by us, even though they will affect solely us for a project that we have been the sole contributors of.”
Jack Cheston ’22 followed up, saying he was not only protesting the College’s decision to end the program, but also the lack of input the farmers had in the decision to do so and the College’s lackluster response to the farmers’ attempts for open conversation regarding its decision. “We’re also striking because we, for over two weeks now, [have] been going through the normal process of trying to talk about this decision, and trying to glean some insight about why it was made and why we weren’t consulted.”
The nature of the rally on Monday differed from the picket last week. Molly Orr ’24, a non-residential Kenyon farmer, provided additional clarification that the objective of Monday’s rally was to protest unfair labor practices committed by the College in, what she claims, was a negative, unilateral change to their terms of employment in the midst of student worker attempts at unionization.
She qualified this, saying that the farmers authorized a strike because the elimination of the farm’s residential program would change the distribution of hours the farmers are able to work.
“Currently the residential farmers are allowed to log up to 20 hours a week while non-residential farmers can only log 10,” she said. “And that makes sense because residential farmers are responsible for daily chores, emergencies that come up — and it really is a 24/7 job, because there’s livestock and there’s constant needs that are not necessarily predictable.” Orr and the Kenyon farmers are claiming that by eliminating the residential program, the College has created a situation in which it will be difficult or nearly impossible for students to reach 20 hours per week.
Bowman has said that these assertions are not true. “Students will be able to work as much as they are willing or able,” he wrote. “The College does not intend to reduce or eliminate opportunities for students to work on the farm.”
“[This] seems impossible to us, as the people who actually do the work, that there’s any way to preserve those hours,” she said. Orr also explained that Bowman has not offered an explanation as to how student farmers will be able to reach 20 hours per week without living at the Farm.
Zoë Packel ’22, a K-SWOC member, explained Orr’s reasoning in greater detail. Packel said that the elimination of the residential program represents a ULP not only because it denotes a change to the farmers’ terms of employment with the College, but also because it was made in the midst of an NLRB election process. “This is a pretty big change to not just a residential program, but a workplace,” she explained. Packel also explained that the changes to the residential program at the farm could be viewed as retaliation for attempts at unionization, a practice that is prohibited by Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA.
Bowman maintains that the College’s decision to end the program was not in retaliation to student worker attempts to unionize. In an email to the Collegian, he wrote that the College is discontinuing use of the farmhouse as a student residence because it will support the College’s goals of making the teaching and learning opportunities on the Farm available to the “largest possible number of community members.”
As a solution to these goals, the farmers proposed their own plan which they released in an all-student email — addressed directly to Bowman and President Sean Decatur — on Wednesday morning. The email outlined the farmers’ intentions to expand the residential program by purchasing an additional farmhouse or by substantially expanding the existing one.
“If your administration is serious about making the Farm into the thriving work environment we know it can be, it can only succeed in this goal by investing in the Farm’s future, not by destroying it,” the email read.
Decatur and Bowman had previously raised concerns about the accessibility of the program, stating that the elimination of the farmhouse would allow for more students to use the space. But the farmers pushed back against the claim, explaining that the only way to make this space more accessible is to expand it.
In recent days, College administrators have broken their silence and announced upcoming plans for the Farm. Bowman stated in an email to the Collegian that the first order of business for Kenyon will be to hire a new farm manager. The manager will be in charge of handling day-to-day operations, including overseeing student farmers and volunteers. Bowman and other administrators believe the Farm will still be able to function properly without residential farmers. “It’s worth noting that many farmers care for animals that are not immediately adjacent to their homes. In fact, we have managed animals on the Kenyon Farm from off the property in the past (during COVID closures, over breaks, etc…),” Director of Green Initiatives David Heithaus wrote in an email to the Collegian.
However, the farmers argue that there is no substitute for the residential program. In a Feb. 9 all-student email, they claimed that, with many students hoping to operate farms following graduation, living on the land is the only way to prepare. “The College’s own professed goals are simply not realistic unless long-term, sustained residency on the farm is an available option to interested students,” the email states.
Although K-SWOC has not yet initiated a strike, Orr said that once it does, the strikers will not return to work until the College agrees to cooperate with the NLRB election process. Even if the College decides to reverse its decision and reinstate the residential program, K-SWOC still plans to strike.
“We plan to strike until the administration begins negotiating in good faith with us over our concerns and provides written guarantees that rectify the unfair labor practices they have committed,” Orr wrote in a message to the Collegian. “‘Good faith’ to us includes cooperating with the NLRB election process.”